Video: A convention of amazingly fast electric cars

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The Connections Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy

Most of the greenhouse gas emitted through human activity comes from the production of energy.

This group of gases is thought to contribute to global climate change, long-term shifts in weather partly due to the tendency of these gases to trap energy, in the form of electromagnetic radiation from the sun, that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space. For more about the relationship between the climate and greenhouse gases, go here.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases  are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

Energy creation results in such a high level of greenhouse gas because the vast majority of energy we use — regardless of what country we live in — comes from burning something, usually coal, petroleum fuels, natural gas, or wood. More than 80 percent of U.S. energy in 2009 came from the combustion of fossil fuels.  Go here for more information about how combustion works.

WE’VE BURNED THINGS FOR EONS, WHY IS IT DIFFERENT NOW?

Plants and some types of microscopic organisms take carbon dioxide gas out of the air and turn it back into solid, carbon-based materials like plant fibers, using the energy of sunlight. The basis for all of our fuels, even the fossil fuels, comes from exploiting the fact that organisms convert  light energy into chemical energy, a potential energy source inside the plant or organism’s cells, whether the energy was converted in the last few decades (wood, biodiesel, ethanol) or millions of years ago (fossil fuels). Today, however, organisms don’t have the capacity to capture anywhere near as much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as we produce, partly because we are burning fuels produced over millions of years.

EMISSIONS ARE A WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON

The United States produces more greenhouse gas each year per person than most other countries. However, even if we stopped producing any carbon dioxide at all, which is unlikely, the world would still keep producing 80 percent of its former output. Other regions produce just as much as we do, particularly Europe and China.

Furthermore, instead of holding steady at a particular emission rate, every year we use more energy and therefore emit more greenhouse gas. For a graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide by year, go here.

When we talk about energy-related emissions, we don’t only mean electricity. Energy involves burning oil and natural gas for heating, burning gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels for transportation. Transportation accounted for just over a third of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2009, electricity was almost 40 percent and residential, commercial, and industrial production, excluding electricity, made up roughly 26 percent.

Some greenhouse gases are thought to alter the climate more than others. Nitrous oxide is a much smaller percent of the gas mix than carbon dioxide, but for its weight it has a much stronger heat-trapping capability.

For more information go to The connection between greenhouse gases, climate change, and global warming.

Each year what proportion of emissions are man-made are carefully tracked by several agencies nationally and internationally, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Sources:

U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Energy Information Administration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
CIA World Fact Book
World Energy Council
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis. U.S. Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy. March 2011.

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The Connection Between Greenhouse Gases, Climate Change & Global Warming


 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CLIMATE CHANGE AND GLOBAL WARMING?

Climate change is the shift in long-term, global weather patterns due to human action; it’s not exclusive to warming or cooling.

Climate change includes any change resulting from different factors, like deforestation or an increase in greenhouse gases. Global warming is one type of climate change, and it refers to the increasing temperature of the surface of Earth. According to NASA, the term global warming gained popular use after geochemist Wallace Broecker published a 1975 paper titled Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?

Since 1880, the average surface temperature of the Earth has increased by roughly 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit, but the rate it’s increasing is faster than that, depending on which region you live in. If you’re closer to the equator, temperatures are increasing more slowly. The fastest increase in temperatures in the United States is in Alaska, where average temperatures have been increases by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit per century. For a graph of average global temperatures by year, see the NASA website here.

 

HOW GREENHOUSE GASES RELATE TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Greenhouse gases are those thought to contribute to the greenhouse effect, an overall warming of the Earth as atmospheric gases trap electromagnetic radiation from the sun that would otherwise have been reflected back out into space.

Noteworthy greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These gases are thought to affect the climate directly and indirectly, even though they constitute only a small fraction of the blanket of gases that make up the atmosphere.

Currently, the composition of the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with just 0.033 percent carbon dioxide and all other gases accounting for even less.

 

WHICH GASES CONTRIBUTE THE MOST?


According to 2010 models cited by NASA, 20 percent of the greenhouse effect is attributed directly to carbon dioxide and 5 percent to all other greenhouse gases. The remaining 75 percent of the greenhouse effect is thought to be due to water vapor and clouds, which are naturally-occurring. However, even though carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases are such a small percentage of the total gas in the atmosphere, they affect when, where and how clouds form, so greenhouse gases have some relevance when it comes to 100 percent of the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is thought to modulate the overall climate, like a atmospheric thermostat.

Some greenhouse gases are produced in natural processes, like forest fires, animal manure and respiration, or volcanic eruptions. However, the majority of new greenhouse gases are produced from industrial processes and energy production.

The four largest human sources of U.S. greenhouse gases in 2009 were energy, non-fuel use of fossil fuels, natural gas production, and cement manufacture, in descending order. Non-fuel, greenhouse gas-producing applications of fuels include industrial production like asphalt, lubricants, waxes and other . Emissions related to cement manufacture happen when limestone (calcium carbonate) is reacted with silica to make clinker, the lumps ground to make cement. ( Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2009: Independent Statistics & Analysis.)

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Power Grid Technology

The electricity industry has three main components: the power plants, the transmission lines, and the distribution to you through utilities.

 

Mostly, three different entities operate these components. A power company owns a plant, some non-profit transmission company is responsible for the transmission, and a utility distributes the electricity to users.

Transmission may seem boring and straightforward — just a bunch of wires — but transmission is probably the most complex and sophisticated part of electricity.

 

WHY TRANSMISSION IS IMPORTANT

We only have the capacity to store the tiniest fraction of electricity produced in a single day. Electricity has to be generated within moments of when its used.

Many thousands of megawatts of power plant capacity are operating right now, and all that power has to be delivered to the right place, right now, too. It’s happening every day, even as individual power plants are pulled off line for service, even as fuel prices fluctuate, or weather conditions change and there’s a heat wave and everyone cranks up their air conditioning, or a major line goes down and there’s suddenly far too much electricity being generated.

Imagine what happens when your source of energy is wind, and the wind dies down. How do you fill the hole? How do we plan for that? It’s all part of the complexity of transmission, and the authorities in charge of it, who also are responsible for reliability and operating the power markets.

The price of electricity fluctuates by hour, as electricity demand rises and falls throughout the day [link to MM if it’s ever constructed]. It can be ten times the price in the middle of the day, when air conditioners and industries are running full blast. But did you know that the price is also different depending on where you are geographically?

Imagine if a single, high voltage line goes down. It’s not only that the people expecting that power won’t get it. Physics dictates that the surrounding lines will instantly be carrying more, and they may go down too, or their flows may change direction. Suddenly, in that instant, the price of electricity on one end of the line become sky high as there’s a lack of electricity, and the price at the other end drops down to nearly zero because there’s too much electricity going there.

Many of these details – energy market administration, the reliability of the power, the price – hinge on the electricity grid and how it’s run and where the lines are.

 

WHY TRACKING TRANSMISSION DATA IS COMPLEX

There is no national electricity grid. The country is divided into the Eastern Interconnected System, the Western Interconnected System, and the Texas Interconnected System. Our grids also interact with the Mexican and Canadian grids in some places.

To complicate matters, a large number of authorities are in charge of electricity transmission, and the authorities don’t all work the same way. There are Independent System Operators in some regions and Regional Transmission Organizations in others, and there are many tiny municipalities all over the country. There are eight regional reliability councils, map here, and the whole smorgasbord is overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

 

A PATCHWORK OF ELECTRICITY MARKETS

On top of the regulatory diversity, which is not really divided by state, energy markets rules are divided by state. For example, all of New England is lumped together when it comes to transmission, under the New England Independent System Operator. Yet, each state in New England has different environmental laws, electricity rate rules, and so forth. For more about electricity markets, go here.

Each region has different rules about when or if it publishes data about how much electricity was used, who used it, and when it was used. But these regions aren’t divided exactly along state lines.

To track how much electricity individual homes used yesterday is almost impossible. Electricity load numbers are all mixed up with industrial and municipal uses, divided along regions that aren’t quite counties or states. Furthermore, in some parts of the country, authorities claim that the electricity demand data is confidential, at least until it has to be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission once per year.  That makes it hard for the public, the government, and research institutions to get information about how we use energy.

 

SMART GRID: WHERE OH WHERE IS THE ELECTRICITY NOW?

When electricity leaves the power plant, we don’t know exactly where it goes, and as stated before, the authorities who know anything are diverse and follow different rules. Yes, we have extremely complex math to model where it is. Yes, we can go out and measure the lines. Yes, individual power plant companies know how much they’re producing. But do we have a national ability to know what is going on everywhere on the grid? No.

But we could.

That is the idea behind the smart grid: know what is going on instantaneously. The idea encompasses technologies for high voltage lines and for low voltage and individual users. It includes tracking electricity and also handling data wirelessly.

Applications for this information could be endless, from encouraging less energy use during peak hours to sociological studies and beyond.

 

SMART METERS

We are only tracking the total energy used over a month. If there aren’t special meters and ways to relay information, we don’t know how much an individual or a neighborhood is using right now. Someone from the electric company would have to get in a truck and go to your home or your neighborhood and measure.

Instead, with smart meters, information about hourly use can be read instantly by the power company and by you, the user.

Having a meter connected to a pleasant interface like a monitor or a webpage allows an individual to take control of their own energy use in a way that was vague and theoretical before.

We can track when people use electricity, where and when there are inefficiencies, pinpointing power outages and how widespread they are. Lumping geographical hourly data together, there’s no end to interesting aspects to study, even into the realms of sociology and psychology.

However, smart meters are new, and the technology is still developing, which means there’s opportunities for many mistakes or poorly functioning equipment. In 2011 a California utility found that a small proportion of meters were malfunctioning if the internal temperatures rose too high.

 

For more information about the electricity market see here.

Also see the Basics of Electricity.

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Physics and How Machines Work

Machines are so complicated these days it’s difficult to quickly explain how they work. Nonetheless, today’s machines were built using the basic principles of physics that we began harnessing hundreds of years ago.

(more…)

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Water Depends on Energy, Or Is It The Other Way Around?

The United States took more than 400 billion gallons of water out of the ground, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs daily in 2005.  (more…)

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The Electricity Marketplace

Boulder Dam wires. Photo by Ansel Adams, from U.S. National Park Service.

Electricity has to be produced within moments of its use. Its markets are bound tight to the paths electricity can take – the geography of power lines – and how much towns and cities need at any moment. And yet, intentionally, the retail electricity prices that we pay are buffered from the wholesale marketplace.

Gasoline is an example of where we energy consumers can see the market forces at work. The price of gasoline sways with the crude oil market, usually somewhere between $70 and $100 per barrel. Those swings are reflected back at the pump, a place any driver is familiar with. No one is surprised by a nickel’s worth of change here or there, but when prices increase by enough, some people actually reduce their driving.

Electricity doesn’t really work that way. The prices in the electricity market can easily double or more, routinely, every single day, and consumers like you and me will never know. (See figure below). The rate that we users pay is tightly regulated by regional authorities, which themselves vary depending on where you are (and not only by state).

Furthermore, we’re insulated from the market because, from our perspective, supply is virtually bottomless. We don’t sign a contract in advance that says we’ll receive a certain amount of electricity and no more. We never hear from the utility saying, we can’t give you that power you wanted, we’re out. We go straight from experiencing bottomless supply, to blackout, and we have no control over either case. And unlike the gas pump, we can’t choose where we buy: a monopoly.

 
And yet, the power plants, the fuels markets and the power companies are a competitive, by design.

The figure, from a few days in June 2011, shows average prices. They are aggregated from the hourly prices at the various distinct places within Maine, which themselves are based on mathematical algorithms and what they predicts is the logical price. However, though these prices matter, no one really pays these average prices. Some power plants are paid by node – a theoretical geographical point  – so they get paid according to the price at that hour at their location. Some power plants get paid by zone, a larger geographical area encompassing nodes. The actual market prices and settlements happen in a market that’s administered by a company, not the government. In Maine’s case, the state participates in a larger, regional market moderated by the New England Independent System Operator, a non-profit company. However, the power lines in Maine are joined in a vast network of power lines all the way across the Eastern seaboard, in the Eastern Interconnection. Therefore, market participants in New England can buy and sell electricity outside of New England too.

Further complexity arises because utilities enter long-term contracts with power plant owners for electricity at a particular cost, years ahead of time. They also enter short-term contracts, and they can buy energy on the spot market, right before they need to deliver it.

To see average prices of electricity by state here.

 

MEETING DEMAND: BASE AND PEAK LOAD

A lot of planning goes into making sure there’s enough electricity at any particular moment, making the most of the type of power plants available: sort of like a symphony of different players at different geographic locations.

Many large power plants, nuclear and coal plants particularly, can produce huge amounts of energy. However, to turn on and ramp up these plants to full capacity takes time and costs a lot of money, even though once the plants are running, producing energy is relatively cheap. Instead, these kinds of plants are applied to the base load, or the minimum amount of energy needed. They run all the time and shut down only for special reasons like maintenance.

At the same time, other kinds of power plants are applied to the peak load, the maximum amount of energy needed. Usually powered by natural gas, they are called peaker plants, and though the electricity they produce is generally more expensive, they can be turned on and ramped up or down quickly and for far less cost than the base plants.

American electricity infrastructure developed regionally, in a slowly filling patchwork of power plants, power lines, and power authorities. Each region of the United States has its own market, with its own, vastly different rules.

One example of diversity in market rules is how to manage payments. The organizations responsible for reliability on the grid and administering the electricity market aren’t allowed to make a profit. At the same time, electricity itself can’t really be tracked, the electrons have no name tags. So even though utilities sign long-term contracts with power producers, there’s no way to guarantee if a power plant in West Texas generated the electricity that it sold to a utility in North Texas. Instead, the market’s moderated through the transmission authorities, who get the money from the utility, and pay the money out to the power plants.

As with the stock market, electricity markets have different products and ways of investing, but every region has different rules about which ones are allowed and how they should be bought and sold.

To really complicate things, market rules don’t even apply to whole states! Take a large state like California. It has its own stringent environmental laws, it has a public utilities commission and an energy commission, and it has its own electricity market and administrator, the California Independent System Operator. However, some parts of Northern California participate in the Northwest power market instead. And there are six small regions in the state of California that are their own balancing authorities, including Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

 

For descriptions of U.S. markets see here, as expressed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

For a map of which states have restructured (deregulated) their energy markets to allow for retail choice, see here.

 

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Ocean Energy

You don’t have to talk about hurricanes and tsunamis to know that the oceans are powerful. People have dreamed about harnessing their energies for centuries, and today there are many projects worldwide experimenting with just how to plug into the oceans.

However, ocean energy projects are expensive because of the nature of their energy source. The salty seas can be corrosive, unpredictable, and destructive.

Several aspects of the ocean’s energy can be exploited to generate power;  we’re not limited to the crashing waves. The three most well-developed ideas are tidal power, wave power, and ocean thermal energy conversion.

There are many different projects in various stages of development in coastal states today. However, as yet, ocean energy isn’t a significant source of energy nationally.

Ocean energy is renewable, and it’s clean because of its lack of emissions. However, using ocean energy along coastlines can cause conflict with other coastal uses – transportation and scenic oceanfront – and ocean energy can as affect marine life and environmental conditions.

 

WAVE ENERGY

Wave energy capitalizes on the power of waves as they roll through the ocean. There are small wave systems generating small amounts of electricity today, though the development costs are high and it is difficult to design equipment that can withstand the salt water, weather and water pressures.

Systems have to be designed for average waves but must also withstand the much stronger waves that occur in seasonal storms and the extreme waves that appear only rarely. Waves shift direction, so systems are designed to move to optimize direction.

Prototype plants currently operating have capacities of fractions of a megawatt, which is the tiniest drop in the bucket compared to average-sized power plants in the hundreds of megawatts.

There are over 100 wave energy technologies in various states of planning and testing or in operation as prototypes. However only one type is operating commercially, the Pelamis Wave Power, according to the World Energy Council.

In the United States there are other projects in planning or testing in Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, and California.

 

TIDAL ENERGY

Using the potential energy of rising and falling ocean tides is called tidal energy.

One way of harnessing the tides is to trap the high tide behind dams.When the ocean rises to its highest tide, the dam is closed and high water is held in a reservoir by the dam. After the water recedes in low tide, the trapped water can be released through turbines like in hydroelectric plants.

Tidal energy plants of this type demand a large height difference between high and low tides, a condition that applies to only select global locations. However, research is ongoing to bypass this limitation.

The one major tidal power plant in operation is the 240 megawatt plant in La Rance, France, which has been operating since 1966, according to World Energy Council. There is also an 18 MW experimental plant in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia and a 0.4 megawatt plant near Murmansk, Russia.

Tidal energy can have the same drawbacks as hydroelectric power, such that dams may interfere with aquatic life.

 

THERMAL ENERGY CONVERSION

Thermal energy conversion harnesses the difference in temperature between the warm, surface waters of the ocean and the colder, deep water. The two temperatures of water are matched to a fluid that has a low boiling point, like ammonia. Using the heat of the warmer water in a heat exchanger, the ammonia is evaporated and, once in gas phase, it rotates a turbine. Then, the colder seawater cools the ammonia back to liquid in a second heat exchanger. The rotating turbine generates electricity.

Open-cycle thermal energy conversion is similar but uses low pressure vessels to boil the warm surface water, instead of employing a fluid like ammonia. Water will boil at lower than its boiling point if the pressure is less than atmosphere. The steam runs a turbine, and then the cold seawater cools the steam back into fluid water.

These projects are expensive and difficult to site, since they must have deep enough water to get a substantial enough difference in temperature, yet the site must also be close enough to shore to transmit electricity.

Thermal plants can change the temperature gradient of the ocean around them, having a potential affect on marine life.

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Basics of Electricity and Circuits: How Energy Moves Through the Home

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ELECTRICITY

The first major use of electricity began in 1879, when Thomas Edison began installing incandescent lighting in notable locations like Wall Street in New York City. Edison wasn’t alone in his pursuit of electricity development, but he was the first to install integrated systems in conspicuous places.

At that time, Americans used various other light sources, like oil lamps, candles, and fires. A candle gives off only around a single watt’s worth of light. Calcium (or lime) lights could provide a lot of light, but it was a harsh light and reserved for conditions like the theater, hence the term in the limelight.

Most lighting was very poor – and often dangerous – in comparison to fluorescent bulbs, and electricity became popular quite quickly. By the turn of the century, other electric devices began to become available, and by the 1920s, Americans could purchase electric refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines.

The first electrical systems depended on extremely local power plants, within a few blocks, or even within the building. As time passed, electricity development became a regional responsibility, and today, the United States is split into many different systems of electricity distribution, including both regulated municipalities and for-profit utilities.

 

WHAT IS ELECTRICITY?

Electricity isn’t merely the existence of electrons but the flow, and it is their flow that provides power. It’s a little bit like gravity and the flow of water downhill. Water will move spontaneously downhill because of gravity. Electrons (like other charged particles) move spontaneously when they are in electric fields. An electric field is generated when there’s a difference in electric potential – called a voltage – just like a hill exists when there’s a difference in altitude.

Electricity is the flow of electrons, which themselves are small charged particles associated with atoms. Under neutral conditions, electrons stay with the atom or group of atoms that make up a compound. However, one electron is indistinguishable from another and can move from one atom to an adjacent one if the atoms make up a conducting material, like various metals.

Voltage can be thought of as the height of the hill. The bigger the voltage, the more electrons want to move, and the more power can be delivered.

Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais, California

Electrons moving can be diverted to do work, sort of in the same way that water traveling downhill can be diverted to run a mill or turbine.

The water’s kinetic energy is lost as it is used up in the turbine. Likewise, the electrons’ kinetic energy is lost when they are put to work in a device. The electrons don’t get destroyed in the process of losing energy, just as the water wouldn’t be destroyed.

 

ALTERNATING CURRENT

When you plug in something like a light, electrons flow from the plug, through the light, and back out through the plug. However, it’s not that simple, since we use what’s called alternating current, or AC, which means that the electrons flow one direction and then reverse direction. Alternating current makes it easy to change from a high voltage to a lower voltage. This change is made through a transformer.

 

ELECTRICITY IN THE HOME

Today, inside the home, electricity powers computers, televisions, telephones, lights, refrigerators, heaters, air conditioning, healthcare-related devices, video games, rechargeable toys, stereos, alarm systems, garage doors, ovens, stovetops, dishwashers, clothes washers, routers, can openers, DVD players, DVRs, and countless rechargeable devices like phones and electronic tablets.

Computers, televisions, and handheld electronic devices have become increasingly popular, while refrigeration, heating, and cooling have become more efficient. These recent trends in home electricity use have shifted the greater part of home energy needs from climate control to electronics.

 

A FUTURE FOR TELEVISION?

Today, most households have more than two televisions, with 88 percent of homes have two or more televisions in 2009. The average household had 2.5 televisions. In the same year, 79 percent had DVD players, 43 percent had DVRs, and 86 percent of households had one or more computers. Nielson reported in May, 2011 that for the first time in 20 years, television ownership is slightly down, perhaps in part because computers may be replacing the use of televisions, DVDs, VCRs, and video games.

 

More about home energy in the energy efficiency section.

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Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Coal

The world depends on fossil fuels for its energy, and the United States is no exception. The vast majority of U.S. energy — more than 80 percent in 2009 — comes from burning fossil fuels. (more…)

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