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The Evolution of America’s Energy Supply (1776 – 2014)

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The Evolution of America's Energy Supply (1776 - 2014)

The Evolution of America’s Energy Supply (1776 – 2014)

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released data on the history of America’s energy supply, sorted by the share of each energy source. We’ve taken that data to create the chart associated with today’s post.

Related Topic: Mapping Every Power Plant in the United States

The early settlers to North America relied on organic materials on the surface of land for the vast majority of their energy needs. Wood, brush, and other biomass fuels were burned to warm homes, and eventually to power steam engines. Small amounts of coal were found in riverbeds and other such outcrops, but only local homes in the vicinity of these deposits were able to take advantage of it for household warmth.

During the Industrial Revolution, it was the invention of the first coal-powered, commercially practical locomotives that turned the tide. Although wood would still be used in the majority of locomotives until 1870, the transition to fossil fuels had begun.

Coke, a product of heating certain types of coal, replaced wood charcoal as the fuel for iron blast furnaces in 1875. Thomas Edison built the first practical coal-fired electric generating station in 1882, which supplied electricity to some residents in New York City. It was just after this time in the 1910s that the United States would be the largest coal producer in the world with 750,000 miners and blasting 550 million tons of coal a year.

The invention of the internal combustion engine and the development of new electrical technologies, including those developed by people like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, were the first steps towards today’s modern power landscape. Fuels such as petroleum and natural gas became very useful, and the first mass-scale hydroelectric stations were built such as Hoover Dam, which opened in 1936.

The discovery and advancement of nuclear technology led to the first nuclear submarine in 1954, and the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States in Pennsylvania in 1957. In a relatively short period of time, nuclear would have a profound effect on energy supply, and it today 99 nuclear reactors account for 20% of all electricity generated in the United States.

Related Topic: What it Takes to Power New York (Slideshow)

In more recent decades, scientists found that the current energy mix is not ideal from an environmental perspective. Advancements in renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind, and geothermal were made, helping set up a potential energy revolution. Battery technology, a key challenge for many years, has began to catch up to allow us to store larger amounts of energy when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Companies like Tesla are spending billions of dollars on battery megafactories that will have a great impact on our energy use.

Today, the United States gets the majority of its energy from fossil fuels, though that percentage is slowly decreasing. While oil is still the primary fuel of choice for transportation, it now only generates 1% of the country’s electricity through power plants. Natural gas has also taken on a bigger role over time, because it is perceived as being cleaner than oil and coal.

Today, in 2015, wind and solar power have generated 5% and 1% of total electricity respectively. Hydro generates 7%.

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Automotive

6 Ways Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Can Help Transition to Clean Energy

Here are six reasons why hydrogen and fuel cells can be a fit for helping with the transition to a lower-emission energy mix.

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Hydrogen and fuel cells

While fossil fuels offer an easily transportable, affordable, and energy-dense fuel for everyday use, the burning of this fuel creates pollutants, which can concentrate in city centers degrading the quality of air and life for residents.

The world is looking for alternative ways to ensure the mobility of people and goods with different power sources, and electric vehicles have high potential to fill this need.

But did you know that not all electric vehicles produce their electricity in the same way?

Hydrogen: An Alternative Vision for the EV

The world obsesses over battery technology and manufacturers such as Tesla, but there is an alternative fuel that powers rocket ships and is road-ready. Hydrogen is set to become an important fuel in the clean energy mix of the future.

Today’s infographic comes from the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA) and it outlines the case for hydrogen.

6 Ways Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Can Help Transition to Clean Energy

Hydrogen Supply and Demand

Some scientists have made the argument that it was not hydrogen that caused the infamous Hindenburg to burst into flames. Instead, the powdered aluminum coating of the zeppelin, which provided its silver look, was the culprit. Essentially, the chemical compound coating the dirigibles was a crude form of rocket fuel.

Industry and business have safely used, stored, and transported hydrogen for 50 years, while hydrogen-powered electric vehicles have a proven safety record with over 10 million miles of operation. In fact, hydrogen has several properties that make it safer than fossil fuels:

  • 14 times lighter than air and disperses quickly
  • Flames have low radiant heat
  • Less combustible
  • Non-toxic

Since hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe, it can be produced almost anywhere with a variety of methods, including from fuels such as natural gas, oil, or coal, and through electrolysis. Fossil fuels can be treated with extreme temperatures to break their hydrocarbon bonds, releasing hydrogen as a byproduct. The latter method uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Both methods produce hydrogen for storage, and later consumption in an electric fuel cell.

Fuel Cell or Battery?

Battery and hydrogen-powered vehicles have the same goal: to reduce the environmental impact from oil consumption. There are two ways to measure the environmental impact of vehicles, from “Well to Wheels” and from “Cradle to Grave”.

Well to wheels refers to the total emissions from the production of fuel to its use in everyday life. Meanwhile, cradle to grave includes the vehicle’s production, operation, and eventual destruction.

According to one study, both of these measurements show that hydrogen-powered fuel cells significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. For every kilometer a hydrogen-powered vehicle drives it produces only 2.7 grams per kilometer (g/km) of carbon dioxide while a battery electric vehicle produces 20 g/km.

During everyday use, both options offer zero emissions, high efficiency, an electric drive, and low noise, but hydrogen offers weight-saving advantages that battery-powered vehicles do not.

In one comparison, Toyota’s Mirai had a maximum driving range of 312 miles, 41% further than Tesla’s Model 3 220-mile range. The Mirai can refuel in minutes, while the Model 3 has to recharge in 8.5 hours for only a 45% charge at a specially configured quick charge station not widely available.

However, the world still lacks the significant infrastructure to make this hydrogen-fueled future possible.

Hydrogen Infrastructure

Large scale production delivers economic amounts of hydrogen. In order to achieve this scale, an extensive infrastructure of pipelines and fueling stations are required. However to build this, the world needs global coordination and action.

Countries around the world are laying the foundations for a hydrogen future. In 2017, CEOs from around the word formed the Hydrogen Council with the mission to accelerate the investment in hydrogen.

Globally, countries have announced plans to build 2,800 hydrogen refueling stations by 2025. German pipeline operators presented a plan to create a 1,200-kilometer grid by 2030 to transport hydrogen across the country, which would be the world’s largest in planning.

Fuel cell technology is road-ready with hydrogen infrastructure rapidly catching up. Hydrogen can deliver the power for a new clear energy era.

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Energy

Visualizing America’s Energy Use, in One Giant Chart

This incredible flow diagram shows how U.S. energy use broke down in 2019, including by source and end sector.

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Visualizing America’s Energy Use, in One Giant Chart

Have you ever wondered where the country’s energy comes from, and how exactly it gets used?

Luckily, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) crunches the numbers every year, outputting an incredible flow diagram that covers the broad spectrum of U.S. energy use.

The 2019 version of this comprehensive diagram gives us an in-depth picture of the U.S. energy ecosystem, showing not only where energy originates by fuel source (i.e. wind, oil, natural gas, etc.) but also how it’s ultimately consumed by sector.

In Perspective: 2019 Energy Use

Below, we’ll use the unit of quads, with each quad worth 1 quadrillion BTUs, to compare data for the last five years of energy use in the United States. Each quad has roughly the same amount of energy as contained in 185 million barrels of crude oil.

YearEnergy ConsumptionChange (yoy)Fossil Fuels in Mix
2019100.2 quads-1.080.0%
2018101.2 quads+3.580.2%
201797.7 quads+0.480.0%
201697.3 quads+0.180.8%
201597.2 quads-1.181.6%

Interestingly, overall energy use in the U.S. actually decreased to 100.2 quads in 2019, similar to a decrease last seen in 2015.

It’s also worth noting that the percentage of fossil fuels used in the 2019 energy mix decreased by 0.2% from last year to make up 80.0% of the total. This effectively negates the small rise of fossil fuel usage that occurred in 2018.

Energy Use by Source

Which sources of energy are seeing more use, as a percentage of the total energy mix?

 20152016201720182019Change ('15-'19)
Oil36.3%36.9%37.1%36.5%36.6%+0.3%
Natural Gas29.0%29.3%28.7%30.6%32.0%+3.0%
Coal16.1%14.6%14.3%13.1%11.4%-4.7%
Nuclear8.6%8.7%8.6%8.3%8.4%-0.2%
Biomass4.8%4.9%5.0%5.1%5.0%+0.2%
Wind1.9%2.2%2.4%2.5%2.7%+0.8%
Hydro2.5%2.5%2.8%2.7%2.5%+0.0%
Solar0.5%0.6%0.8%0.9%1.0%+0.5%
Geothermal0.2%0.2%0.2%0.2%0.2%+0.0%

Since 2015, natural gas has grown from 29% to 32% of the U.S. energy mix — while coal’s role in the mix has dropped by 4.7%.

In these terms, it can be hard to see growth in renewables, but looking at the data in more absolute terms can tell a different story. For example, in 2015 solar added 0.532 quads of energy to the mix, while in 2019 it accounted for 1.04 quads — a 95% increase.

Energy Consumption

Finally, let’s take a look at where energy goes by end consumption, and whether or not this is evolving over time.

 20152016201720182019Change ('15-'19)
Residential15.6%15.2%14.7%15.7%15.7%+0.1%
Commercial12.1%12.5%12.3%12.4%12.4%+0.3%
Industrial33.9%33.8%34.5%34.6%34.8%+0.9%
Transportation38.4%38.5%38.5%37.3%37.1%-1.3%

Residential, commercial, and industrial sectors are all increasing their use of energy, while the transportation sector is seeing a drop in energy use — likely thanks to more fuel efficient cars, EVs, public transport, and other factors.

The COVID-19 Effect on Energy Use

The energy mix is incredibly difficult to change overnight, so over the years these flow diagrams created by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have not changed much.

One exception to this will be in 2020, which has seen an unprecedented shutdown of the global economy. As a result, imagining the next iteration of this energy flow diagram is basically anybody’s guess.

We can likely all agree that it’ll include increased levels of energy consumption in households and shortfalls everywhere else, especially in the transportation sector. However, the total amount of energy used — and where it comes from — might be a significant deviation from past years.

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