Global energy losses in electricity generation (twh, yr 2000)

I’ve written before about how efficiency is not the enemy of resiliency and the benefits of going all-electric. In Part I, I mentioned a few ways to cut our energy diet from 230 kwh /person/day to 100 kwh/person/day. I also pointed out that 56 kwh/person/day of our energy consumption is lost as waste heat in thermal generation of electricity. (One of the reasons Denmark is so energy-efficient is that they use cogeneration and district energy systems to turn this waste heat into heat for homes and commercial buildings.)

This means just converting our electrical generation to solar, wind and hydro, which have no heat losses, will give us a big jump in reducing our energy consumption. Solar and wind are also not 100% efficient in turning potential energy into electricity, but the sun shines and the wind blows whether we turn it into kilowatt-hours or not, so there’s no waste. Whereas the coal, natural gas, oil and uranium that turn into unused heat are gone forever, not to mention all the polluting by-products.

More attractive than a wind turbine?

These thermal energy losses in electricity generation are part of the reason Wyoming and Montana are such energy guzzlers. Both states burn coal to create electricity, far more than their state consumes. They then export this electricity to other states. However, the heat losses (2/3rds!) involved in this electricity generation are still part of their state’s consumption. This is also a factor in why energy consumption in California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island is as low as it is. These states import a lot of their electricity but aren’t apportioned the associated waste heat losses because the fuel wasn’t burned in their state. (Note: there’s no point saying you’re importing "green" energy if the state you’re importing it from is burning coal or natural gas to provide for their own electricity needs.)

Now one might think with all these heat losses that going all-electric isn’t a good idea until all our electricity is produced by hydro and renewables. One would be wrong. Amazingly, even with the huge losses our current electricity generation entails, it is still more efficient to use heat pumps than natural gas for space heating. (Yes, sunlight beats both.) The same is true for an electric car compared to a 22 mpg gasoline-powered car. Of course, as your state’s energy mix takes on more wind, solar and hydro, the total system efficiency of both heat pumps and electric transportation zooms up.

Back to a 100 kwh/person/day energy budget. "Come on," I hear you say. "Sealing and insulating homes is all well and good, and maybe heat pumps are snazzy, but how could the United States possibly cut its energy use by more than half and still have a decent way of life?" It does seem daunting. Let’s look at it by sector. Industrial is longest because it’s the toughest nut to crack due to high heat process needs. Just scroll through it if you’re not interested.

Residential

Massive insulating and sealing of existing housing stock; super-insulated walls and ceilings; tight building envelopes; insulated crawl spaces, foundation walls, and slab foundations; higher percentage of multifamily housing; LED lighting; air source and ground source heat pumps for space and hot water heating; insulated hot water tanks; desuperheaters; district energy systems; radiant hydronic heating; high-efficiency fireplace inserts; high-efficiency woodstoves; masonry heaters; solar hot water; passive solar gain; low-flow showerheads; clothes lines; electric induction/convection cooking; electric chainsaws and lawn mowers; lawns converted to vegetable gardens; ceiling fans; whole house fans; heat/energy exchange ventilators; waste water heat recovery; front load washers; awnings; shade trees; street trees to reduce urban heat island effect; green roofs; white roofs; double and triple glazed fiberglass windows; thermal mass; timed thermostats; ultra-efficient appliances; replace or eliminate old refrigerators; no second refrigerators in garages; all new residential buildings net-zero-energy capable; deep energy retrofits for multifamily housing; timely energy use feedback to residents; rebates for low energy use in multi-family buildings; structured insulated panels; build without thermal bridging; duct sealing; fewer housing square feet per person; eliminate vampire electric draw from gadgets/cable boxes; sharply tiered electric rates for high energy slurpers; housing stock 100% all electric.

Bring the daylight in

Commercial

Massive insulating and sealing of buildings; whole building envelope upgrades; radiant hydronic heat; LED lighting; LED streetlights; air source and ground source heat pumps; solar hot water; heat pump hot water; wastewater heat recovery; seal ducts; retrofit windows; district energy systems; make use of industrial waste heat via district energy systems; replace steam heat in district energy systems with hot water; ceiling fans; heat/energy exchange ventilators; chilled beams/chilled sails for cooling; revolving doors; vestibules; operable windows; natural ventilation; night flush; low-E high-efficiency high-thermal-performance glazing; automated sunshades; dynamic glazing; green roofs; white roofs; living walls; thermal mass; zone heating; proper equipment maintenance; don’t overcool; don’t chill the outdoors; don’t heat the outdoors; plug load management; no under-the-desk space heaters or refrigerators; waste heat recovery (especially from computer server rooms); daylighting; solar tubes; skylights; light shelves; building automation systems with zones, daylight harvesting, occupancy sensors and optimum warm up and cool down cycles; grocery store refrigerators and freezers again behind glass; all new buildings under 4 stories zero-net-energy capable; buildings that encourage stair use; recycled building materials; multistory mixed-use infill developments in towns and cities that replace parking lots, garages, auto dealerships, auto repair shops, gas stations, and other auto infrastructure; end minimum parking requirements; less floorspace per office worker; sharing economy allow efficient use of resources; reduced medical kwhs through better food and exercise; sharply tiered electric rates for energy slurpers; commercial buildings 100% all electric.

Industrial, including farming

Ubiquitous waste heat recovery; daylighting; solar tubes; solar hot water preheat for industrial processes; solar boilers; boiler insulation; boiler blowdown heat exchangers; boiler condensate return systems; minimize energy draw during idle process conditions; some use of combined industrial heat and power; energy management systems; benchmark energy efficiency; advanced controls and operations for optimized energy draw; reduce gas flaring; renewable raw materials; improved reverse osmosis water purification technology; improve yields of raw materials to desired products; manufacturing engineers prioritize energy and water-efficienct processes; recycle manufacturing and process waste streams; optimize supply chain energy consumption; product life cycle management; community recycling to reduce energy to produce aluminum, copper, steel, glass and paper; improved fiber recycling; next generation mill processes; eliminate junk mail; cloth napkins; reusable water bottles, bags, sandwich containers, growlers; buy in bulk and refill own containers to reduce packaging; home and community composting; slash use of energy-intensive chemical fertilizer via compost and crop rotation to fix nitrogen; slash use of energy-intensive chlorine through reduced use of bleached paper, PVC, vinyl flooring, pharmaceuticals, insecticides, chlorine-based cleaning products; reduce use of energy-intensive ethylene through slashed use of plastic bags, plastic wrap, bubble warp, plastic toys, plastic milk jugs, polystyrene packaging; stop buying endless amounts of plastic junk that just gets thrown away; high-yield, bio-intensive, compost-intensive home and community vegetable gardens; eliminate most petroleum refining; phase out coal mining; eliminate ethanol mandate and ethanol production; eliminate high fructose corn syrup from American diet; eat fewer highly-processed foods; reduce food waste; reduce/eliminate chemical fertilizer and pesticide use; end most crop subsidies (corn most importantly); grow cotton, rice and alfalfa in places with ample water; end most water subsidies; solar drying of crops; green manures; towns and cities develop 100 mile foodsheds; reduce food imports; reduce consumption of all forms of sugar; small biointensive, high-yield, compost-intensive, no-till family farms growing fruits and vegetables on outskirts of cities; hedgerows and other beneficial crop insect habitat; no-till organic grain farms with crimping and careful crop rotation; energy-efficient indoor cannabis growing; grow cannabis outdoors; fruit walls; unheated greenhouses with thermal mass; most food packaging compostable; hoop houses for year-round growing; row covers; eat less meat and more vegetables; eat fewer processed grains and more vegetables; eat less food that’s been frozen or dehydrated; eat only meat/dairy from local range-fed animals; mobile abattoirs; farmers’ and crafters’ markets; buy fewer industrially-produced items; buy products built to last; buy products possible to repair; reduce consumption and reuse stuff; buy used; prevent need for desalination in dry places by eliminating lawns and water waste and adding water collection and storage; electrified industrial-scale compost systems for towns and cities for nutrient cycling; asphalt solar collectors; interseasonal heat transfer and borehole thermal energy storage for snowmelt and district heating systems; electricity prices for industry 2/3rds of residential price instead of half; energy use (beyond solar thermal) in US industry 95% all electric.

Energy efficient

Transportation

Electrified passenger rail for distances under 400 miles; regional passenger rail hubs (Atlanta, Washington DC, Chicago, New York); improved rail tracks; passenger rail 100% double-tracked; eliminate passenger rail at-grade crossings; straighten/eliminate rail track curves; 125 mph average passenger rail speed; electrified doublestack rail freight; 50 mph freight rail speed; advanced train scheduling, trip optimization and control systems; electric shared-use autonomous vehicles; electric shared autonomous shuttles; regenerative breaking on trains; Electric Multiple Unit trains; electric buses; electric trams; electric garbage and fire trucks; economic incentives to live car-free; majority of population lives within 15 miles of job; work at home; good local schools; electric bicycles; regular bicycles; bikeshare systems; lower speed limits in populated areas; walk or bike most trips under a mile; under-used roads return to gravel; pedestrian-only boulevards, commercial streets, promenades, main streets and market streets; network of protected bicycle infrastructure within cities/towns and between them; Vehicle Mile Travel charge based on road repair costs and vehicle weight; dramatically reduce private car vehicle miles traveled; local streets safe enough for children to walk and bike to school and activities; walkable neighborhoods; walkable shopping districts; multifamily residential over ground floor retail; live within a ten minute bike ride of a grocery store/pharmacy/medical clinic/library/park/playing field/elementary school; buy local; buy used from local sources; drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water/soda pop/fruit juice; drink local beer, wine and spirits; eat local fruits and vegetables in season; electric dry box trucks for farmers to take produce to cities; electric trucks for delivery last one to ten miles of goods from rail freight terminals; fewer goods deliveries to homes; package locker pick ups in towns and cities; biofuels for aviation; hydrogen fuel cells for ships; transportationin the US 95% all electric.

 So good. So cheap.

Whew! Amazingly, all this stuff is not only cheaper than building out solar and wind, it’s cheaper than continuing to drill and refine oil and build natural gas plants. Even better, many of these measures reinforce others in a virtuous circle. For instance, more walking means not only fewer transportation kwhs but also reduced cancer, high blood pressure and depression. This in turn means fewer kwhs used up by doctors’ offices and hospitals as well as fewer kwhs used in the manufacture of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals such as blood pressure meds and anti-depressants. So just by walking, we reduce commercial, industrial and transportation energy demand, and we increase our standard of living (healthier citizenry), all for very little cost. Yes, as we transition, jobs will inevitably be lost in some areas, but they will be gained in others, such as in biointensive farming, compost facilities, wetlands restoration, deep building energy retrofits, train yards, and manufacturing solar PV, batteries, and wind turbines. After all, just as it’s poor policy to encourage to smoking in order to provide tobacco and medical jobs, it’s also unwise to encourage sedentary lifestyles in order to provide auto and medical jobs.

Aging

So where are we at now at producing 100 kwh/person/day of electricity? As you might suspect, it varies widely by state. Some produce quite a bit of electricity per person, but when we add up electricity from renewables (including rooftop solar) + hydro and divide it by population, it often doesn’t amount to much. We could add in nuclear, but because the US still doesn’t have any safe, long-term storage yet for nuclear waste, and no state wants to host such storage, I’m not optimistic that in 20 years we’ll still have much nuclear around. Since the average age of American nuclear plants is 35 years old and they were only built to operate for 40 years, I’m guessing we’ll eke out some extensions on aging plants, retire most others, and not create many new ones. The fact that solar and wind are already cheaper than new nuclear plants pretty much spells their doom. Plus nuclear plants waste two-thirds of their energy as heat just as almost all US thermal electricity generation does.

So let’s examine 2015 renewables + hydro generation kwh/person/day by state, grouped by region. (The US EIA includes as renewables electricity produced by geothermal and biomass.) Remember, each state needs 100 kwh/person/day, or another state will have to generate more than that and send the extra to them. Also remember that the further electricity is transmitted, the higher the losses along the way, although underground DC cables could cut transmission losses in half. (The US currently loses 6% of its electricity in transmission.) Rooftop solar PV avoids almost all transmission loss.

New England and Mid-Atlantic Renewable+ Hydro kwh/capita/day generation

North Central Renewables + Hydro kwh/capita/day generation

South Renewables + Hydro kwh/capita/day generation

Mountain Renewables + Hydro kwh/capita/day generation

Pacific Renewables + Hydro kwh/capita/day generation

Adapted to wind

It’s ironic that two states with some of the best wind resources in the country are North Dakota and Wyoming, giants of coal-mining, fracking and burning coal for electricity to export to other states. If these states stopped mining, drilling and burning coal, and focused instead on wind energy production, the carbon-free electricity they could export (at a premium!) would pay better, provide more jobs, and would destroy their states a great deal less than the mining and fracking they’re so fond of. Yet another irony is that if utilities stopped fighting rooftop solar, which will only push customers off-grid as solar and battery prices fall, and instead embraced electrification of heating and transportation, they’d have more business and profits than they’d know what to do with. As it stands, their intransigence means they are likely to share the fate of big oil/big coal and disappear altogether as cities and towns defect and create their own municipal utilities, or businesses and homes decide to adapt the sharing economy to local power generation and storage networks.

Future US energy production in a 100 kwh/person/day world might look something like:

May be necessary

Because of the intermittent nature of solar and wind, our national energy system will require batteries, pumped hydro storage, short term thermal storage, interseasonal thermal storage, microgrids, sophisticated and reliable grid operation, effective electricity markets, and long distance high voltage DC lines to transmit electricity from windy places. Much of our industrial production will need to go into building out the infrastructures necessary for renewable energy generation, for energy storage and transmission, and for electrified rail and other transit. But this infrastructure creation, combined with localized, small-scale, biointensive farming, will create tens of millions of jobs.

Mr. Anti-Efficiency

As we’ve seen, some states need to roll up their sleeves and get to work on energy efficiency, some have a lot of renewables to build out, and most need to do both. Hawaii, New York and California are low on renewable production per capita but they also don’t use that much energy. It’s possible each could get by with 70 or 80 KWH/person/day. Cold windy states may need 110 kwh/person/day, and humid southern states or sparsely populated Midwest ones may find that 120 kwh is the best they can do. But achieving an average of 100 kwh/person/day in the US is completely within our reach. To get the ball rolling, rather than continue to subsidize various forms of energy (the US subsidizes fossil fuels more than renewables), we should stop all energy subsidies, implement a briskly rising carbon tax, and invest the proceeds in energy efficiency, especially electrified rail/transit and zero-net-energy multifamily housing for low/moderate income households in walkable neighborhoods. Higher energy costs (the antidote to Jevons Paradox, for those who worry about that) will drive energy efficiency in spades, and we will be stunned (stunned!) at how quickly and innovatively the US economy adapts. If other countries don’t follow our lead, we can impose greenhouse gas tariffs on their goods proportionate to their per capita emissions. (As might be expected, at present US per capita CO2 emissions are among the highest in the world.) We will find we can reach 100 kwh/person/day with technology that already exists while leading a pleasant, comfortable way of life, albeit one a bit different than the one we lead now.

A lower decibel life

Our streets and neighborhoods will be far quieter, for one thing. Our air and water will be cleaner, our bodies will absorb fewer toxins, and our citizenry will be healthier mentally and physically. Local businesses and high-yield small farms will flourish, and the United States will finally be energy independent. We human beings alive over the next twenty years have the power to make this planet a paradise or a living hell. We can sabotage and delay the necessary changes out of fear or greed, or we can face our predicament and do what needs to be done. Entirely our choice.