Ever wonder what energy source is powering your everyday life? Does that plug-in electric vehicle you are considering emit less carbon over its lifetime than a gasoline powered one? Here at PetroDE, we love answering these types of questions by visualizing and analyzing the data on a map.
The electric grid in the United States is a complex network of interconnected power plants. It simplifies our everyday tasks, yet we don’t usually give it much thought (that is, until it goes down). Power sources for this electricity vary by region, yet all feed into a vast interconnected grid. In the map above, PetroDE analyzed data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) for the period between August 2017 and July 2018.
Using our chart feature on the same data, we see the total power generated by each type of energy source. Natural gas generated the most electricity, greatly outpacing all other energy sources, and energy produced by wind has surpassed that produced by petroleum.
In the past ten years, coal as a primary energy source has been declining. It is being replaced with natural gas and renewables at a steady rate. In 2017, electric power in the United States was generated by 32.1 percent natural gas and 29.9 percent coal.
Carbon emissions declining
In the twelve years between 2005 and 2017, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions was reduced by 28 percent. A combination of lower demand, replacing coal generated electricity with natural gas, and adding non-carbon sources are responsible for the reduction.
Utilities increasing their renewables
As the cost of renewable energy sources continues to decline, more and more utility companies are phasing out high carbon energy sources like coal for green energy like wind and solar. For example, in the state of Colorado, Xcel Energy plans to significantly boost the share of power it gets from wind and solar, while retiring a third of its coal generation. The Colorado Energy Plan, recently given the green light by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, is projected to decrease the share of power from coal from 44 percent in 2017, down to 24 percent by 2026. Natural gas is projected to drop from 28 percent to 23 percent, while wind is estimated to rise from 23 percent to 39 percent, and solar is estimated to rise from 3 percent to 13 percent. The plan estimates that carbon emissions will drop by half and renewable sources will account for a total of 55% of its electricity production by 2026. Many other states are taking similar steps.
The following graph from the EIA illustrates the gains made by renewables in the last ten years.
These PetroDE generated charts show the states leading the way in wind and solar power as their primary energy source:
Battery Storage still expensive and small scale
Increases in renewalbe energy for power generation on the grid will require large-scale power storage solutions, such as batteries, to overcome the high fluctuation in output from wind and solar. California could be the home of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery project by late 2020, but it has a steep price tag. In California, wind and solar both fall off drastically during the fall and winter months, thus lots and lots of storage is needed for those cloudy, windless days to avoid power outages. Costly lithium-ion batteries may not be the best choice.
A 2016 study by MIT found that substantial cost reductions in battery storage are needed to justify large-scale deployment. Smaller scale resources with a 10-hour storage capacity deliver value consistent with the current cost of pumped hydroelectric storage. Next generation battery storage will need to be cheap, plentiful, and clean to manufacture. We are encouraged by the progress being made with other options such as magnesium-based batteries.
Zero Carbon Natural Gas making headway
Another technology that is worth mentioning is the progress being made for zero carbon natural gas. NET Power, a US energy startup, is testing the technology at a pilot plant in La Porte, Texas. The plant burns natural gas but repurposes the carbon dioxide released into supercritical carbon dioxide that’s then used to drive a specially built turbine in a continuous and self-sustaining cycle. Around 32 percent of US electricity is produced with natural gas, accounting for around 30 percent of the power sector’s carbon emissions. And this technology is estimated to be available in just three to five years, at a cost much lower than lithion-ion battery storage. With the availability of shale gas and the rising supplies of liquefied natural gas around the globe, this is a very welcome technology that can make an impact on carbon emissions in the near future.
Is now the time to buy that Electric Vehicle?
As we have seen from the available data, carbon emissions are dropping and renewable energy sources are advancing. As the grid gets cleaner, so do Plug-in Electric Vehicles (PEVs). An analysis in this Bloomberg article found that driving a PEV generates less carbon than driving a gasoline powered car, even when powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. But that is just DRIVING the car.
Manufacturing a new car, either gasoline or electric spews a lot of carbon. Furthermore, PEVs require large batteries made from metals that are not emission friendly. Just how green your PEV is depends not only on the energy used to power it, but also where and how the battery is made.
Green energy is making great advances making it possible to cut carbon emissions, not only in the US, but across the globe. We hope we have not only piqued your interest in this question, but inspired you to do some research yourself, starting with some of the links in this blog.