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The Safest Source of Energy Will Surprise You

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The World's Safest Source of Energy Will Surprise You

The World’s Safest Source of Energy Will Surprise You

When it comes to conversations on energy, it’s hard to leave your feelings at the door.

It’s arguable that energy is the single most important driver of human progress – it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry that powers our daily lives, technological advancements, and even the economic development of entire countries. At the same time, our choices around energy can have significant consequences. How we decide to generate energy can decimate the environment, fuel political conflicts, and even cause human deaths as unwelcome side effects.

The outcomes from our choices around energy are so vivid, that we’ve developed strong and polarized associations with the subject at hand.

The Empirical Perspective

Today’s visualization on the safest sources of energy comes to us from Cambridge House, the company hosting the International Mining Investment Conference 2018 on May 15-16 in Vancouver, BC, and it uses an empirical approach to compare different energy sources with one another.

Based on the data, this comparison provides a perspective that will be surprising to many viewers. Despite its perceived dangers, nuclear is actually the safest type of energy.

Energy SourceDeaths per 1,000 TWh% of Global Primary Energy Supply (2015)
Coal100,00028.1%
Oil36,00031.7%
Natural Gas4,00021.6%
Hydro1,4002.5%
Solar440*<1%
Wind150<1%
Nuclear904.9%

That’s right – even when including seemingly catastrophic incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima in the calculations, the math says that the amount of energy generated by nuclear is so vast that it more than outweighs these incidents over the long-term.

The reality is that nuclear energy is much more comparable to renewables like solar or wind, in terms of safety. More importantly, it’s on the polar opposite of the spectrum from coal, which manages to kill 4,400 people daily in China alone.

The Nuclear Option

Interestingly, multiple studies have come to this exact same conclusion, including the ones used in an analysis by economist Max Roser’s project called Our World in Data.

Even though the conclusion on nuclear is pretty cut and dry, it’s still hard to absorb. After all, the relative safety of nuclear ends up being extremely counter-intuitive to our human brains, which are seemingly wired to put more weight on big, memorable events (i.e. Chernobyl) rather than slow, consistent deaths that occur over time with other energy sources.

Today, nuclear provides about 11% of the world’s electricity from about 450 power reactors, generating about 2,500 TWh of electricity each year.

And while there are still questions that remain – specifically revolving around how to store certain types of nuclear waste – the above data explains why the majority of scientists classify nuclear as a sustainable and safe energy source, along with other renewables.

This post originally appeared on Visual Capitalist’s new VC Metals channel, home to data-driven visual content on metals, commodities, and energy.

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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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