Energized on energy issues

Just did an exam this morning on energy and the environment. I had to review world energy statistics, different types of energy production and fuels and well, just how we use energy in general. It was pretty interesting and pretty eye opening in a lot of ways.

Thought I’d share some of the findings because I think that energy issues are important for everyone and we can’t expect everyone to read International Energy Agency stats etc.

BIRD’S EYE VIEW: FOSSIL FUELS VS. RENEWABLES

  • About 80% of our total energy supply comes from the fossil fuels: oil, coal and gas (factsheet here)
  • 13% goes to renewable energies… but wait, before getting to excited about that number:
    • 10% goes to combustible renewables and waste – i.e. developing countries that have to burn wood (usually by clear cutting in very unsustainable ways) or worse, cow dung to do their basic cooking and heating – without pollution controls, this is an incredibly inefficient way of getting energy and smoke pollution and CO2 levels are dangerously high
    • 2% goes to hydro (big thing for making electricity) – although good on a small scale, there are some serious environmental problems when the dams get too big (think Three Gorges Dam in China and then think no more happy thoughts…)
    • Sorry… anything that has little impact on the environment has 0.5% of the total supply… combined.

SO HOW MUCH ENERGY DO WE ACTUALLY USE?

Think about when you turn on a light. The useful energy (light) came from the socket in the wall (electricity) which was distributed to you via a huge network of power lines and cables from the electrical power unit in your community. The fuel that powers the company most likely came from coal, natural gas or hydropower. In every single transition, there’s a loss of useful energy. These losses are not small either…

From the coal that goes into the modern coal-fired power plant to the incandescent light bulb that you use – at the end of the day, you may only be seeing 2% of the actual energy in the coal. WHAT?! That’s a loss of 98%! UNBELIEVABLE!

(This is from my textbook – but for those that are questioning the metrics behind this, coal plant’s are usually about 35% efficient and the incandescent bulb turns only about 5% of this into light)

Even I didn’t fully understand the importance of this energy conversion efficiency… now it’s making a lot more sense and definitely opening the eyes.

Most of us go through our daily lives without ever thinking about where our energy comes from. And granted, why should we? We pay the bill and that’s it. How can we, as consumers, start asking for better solutions when most of us have no idea what’s going on in the first place?

Next… SAD STORIES on the energy front

(Don’t worry after that I’ll bring up some happy news:)

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5 thoughts on “Energized on energy issues

  1. Jay Godse says:

    Energy conversion efficiency is so true. I read an article that said that in a typical computer data centre, the power losses are astronomical. First the power that comes in has to be stepped down at the entrance to the data centre (resulting in losses). Then it goes to your computer, where it is stepped down and converted from AC to DC.

    People are starting to realize that for data centres, if they do an end-to-end analysis of power consumption, there is a huge opportunity to eliminate electrical power losses. Since most power losses result in the generation of heat, each power loss also results in a saving of power for air conditioning.

    I am going to guess that if we took the time to analyze the end-to-end power losses for our energy systems, we could gain huge power savings. Cars like the Toyota Prius are an example of this. An end-to-end analysis shows that slowing a car down causes the kinetic energy of a car to convert to something else. Usually it is into hot brakes. Cars like the Prius use generators to convert brake energy into electricity. This electricity can then be reused later to get the car going again.

    The challenge here, as always, is the business case. Most organizations do not reward an end-to-end energy analysis. For example, the computer power-supply guy is concerned about (and rewarded for) delivering reliable power to the computer board. He is different from the data centre guy who is concerned about delivering reliable power to the computers. He is different from the HVAC guy who wants to ensure that the room is cool enough for the computers to function properly. Each one optimizes their own scope of influence, but that often leads to sub-optimal system power usage.

    Another example is that of concentrating jobs in the city centre while having people in the suburbs. Why do people live so far from their jobs? Usually it is because living near jobs is too expensive. However, this model leads to huge amounts of energy (and time) wasted on commuting to work. Even if there was a good end-to-end business case for moving jobs near where people lived, it would be hard to do because nobody owns that end-to-end result.

    Getting efficiency gains is possible, but empowering people with the right mix of incentives, influence, and control to do this job is very difficult.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the importance of consumers and voters understanding energy issues. This is why I work full time on writing and lecturing about energy and environmental topics.

    Speaking of which, anyone who wants an introduction to the topic of peak oil is welcome to download and share my most recent presentation on the topic, The Oil Crunch:

    http://www.grinzo.com/energy/downloads/theoilcrunch09x20x2007.pdf

  3. janeporter says:

    Jay – exactly… the traditional accounting system is not based on life cycle assessment (cradle to grave thinking). So.. even though the smart thing to do is make those efficiency gains (environmental and economic) – we’re not trained to — yet.

    ISO 14001 and other environmental and/or management standards are getting more and more into this life cycle thinking. Already businesses are doing a lot more of them and they’re seeing the benefits. Companies that have a lot more power in the supply chain are making those changes. Not in the energy sense exactly, but wal-mart is one of these cases (again, this is my love/hate for walmart…) But in any case, this is hopefully where we’re headed – more interaction between players in the marketplace to make those changes. Gov’t legislation also helps;)

  4. janeporter says:

    Lou,

    Thanks for posting. Glad that I snagged someone who is indeed interested in this topic. (we just need to find those people that are not so interested now;)

    I took a look at it. I like your frankness and the fact that yes, you’re taking real numbers!!! It’s a confusing world out there though! Haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing though but will soon.

    cheers,
    jane

    I’ll keep an eye on your site.

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