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Insights From An Energy Flow Chart Of The United States

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2017

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant who has 27 years experience as a public servant and 10 years experience as a diplomat.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is one of three prestigious energy research institutions funded by the United States Department of Energy. It periodically produces energy “flow charts” that depict and quantify the origins, transformation and uses of different energy sources. Recently, the laboratory published the flow chart for the United States for 2016.

Here it is.

us energy flow chart robert lyman dec 11 2017.png

The left side of the chart lists the various primary energy sources, colour-coded and quantified in terms of quadrillion British Thermal Units (“Quads”). The arrows moving from left to right that show the amounts of these energy sources that are used to supply the energy services in the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors of the U.S. economy and a category of “rejected energy” that is, in effect, lost in the transformation and delivery processes. Many energy sources are used to produce secondary energy in the form of electricity.

 

The flow chart offers many valuable insights that are often ignored by commenters on energy and climate issues today.

 

The first concerns the relative roles of the different energy sources in providing primary energy. Table 1 summarizes these.

 

TABLE 1

Primary Energy Sources in the United States in 2016 

Source

Production (Quads)

Percentage

Petroleum

35.9

45.6

Coal

14.2

18.0

Natural gas

10.3

13.1

Nuclear

8.42

10.7

Biomass

4.75

6.0

Hydro

2.46

3.1

Wind

2.11

2.9

Solar

0.34

0.4

Geothermal

0.23

0.3

Total

78.71

100.0

Fossils fuels (petroleum, coal and natural gas) thus accounted for about 77% of U.S. primary energy supply. The so-called “new renewables” of wind, solar and geothermal account for less than 4%.

 

A large proportion of that primary energy goes as fuel for electricity generation. The quantities are shown in Table 2.

 

TABLE 2

Primary Energy Used for Electricity Generation

Source

Quads

Percentage

   
Coal

13.0

34.6

Natural gas

10.3

27.4

Nuclear

8.42

22.4

Hydro

2.46

6.5

Wind

2.11

5.6

Biomass

0.51

1.4

Solar

0.34

0.6

Petroleum

0.24

0.6

Geothermal

0.23

0.6

Total

37.61

100.0

As indicated in this table, the traditional sources of energy for electricity generation (coal, natural gas, nuclear and hydro) account for 91% of supply today. The new renewables (wind, solar and geothermal) account for fewer than 7%.

 

Of the 37.6 Quads of energy that fuels electricity generation (37.5 Quads on the flow chart), a remarkably high proportion (24.9 Quads, or two-thirds) becomes “rejected energy”. Only 12.6 Quads of electricity, moves on to meet the economy’s needs.

 

The next point to note is how the needs of different economic sectors for energy services are met, both by primary energy source and electricity. This is summarized in Table 3.

TABLE 3

Role of Energy Sources in Meeting Sectoral Needs 

Consuming SectorEnergy Supply

Quads

Percentage

TransportationPetroleum

25.7

92.1

 Biomass

1.46

5.2

 Natural gas

0.74

2.7

 Sector total

27.9

100.0

    
IndustrialNatural gas

9.61

39.2

 Petroleum

8.12

33.1

 Electricity

3.19

13.0

 Biomass

2.28

9.3

 Coal

1.23

5.0

 Sector total

24.5

100.0

    
CommercialElectricity

4.64

51.4

 Natural gas

3.24

35.9

 Petroleum

0.88

9.8

 Sector total

9.02

100.0

    
ResidentialElectricity

4.8

43.6

 Natural gas

4.54

41.3

 Petroleum

1.02

9.8

 Sector total

11.0

100.0

    

This table reveals some interesting points:

  • As of 2016, petroleum and natural gas supplied 93.8 % of the transportation sector’s energy needs. Electricity generated by whatever source provided too little to even register.
  • The transportation sector consumed more energy than any other sector
  • Natural gas is an important fuel source in all four sectors of the energy economy, but especially in the residential sector.
  • Despite the critical importance of electrical energy, fossil fuels continue to supply over 77% of the industrial sector’s energy needs, not counting transportation.
  • Electricity supplied more than half the energy needs of the commercial sector (with, as previously noted, 91% of the electricity generation provided by traditional sources).

 

These figures offer an important factual context for the ongoing debate about whether modern renewables will soon replace either all other electricity generation sources or all the economy’s energy needs. Governments, including those in the United States, have been actively supporting and subsidizing renewables technology and commercialization for over forty years, since the first OAPEC oil embargo of 1974. Especially in the period since 1990, many billions of taxpayer and electricity ratepayer dollars have been spent through direct and indirect subsidies to promote wind and solar energy. The net result of this extraordinary expenditure is that modern renewables constitute 7% of the primary energy used for electricity generation. For the whole economy, after 43 years of governmental support, modern renewable constitute 4% of supply. Only 96% of the way to go. It may take a while.

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2 Comments

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_electricity_production_from_renewable_sources

    6 states in the United States have over 60% of their electricity by renewable energy. This will change and grow larger.

  2. At what cost and electricity is only a small part of energy use

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