Electricity is an unseen product, flowing into and out of homes, schools, and businesses, literally powering our country. It is in constant demand and production, but few people see its impact. Energy transmission infrastructure is ubiquitous, and with over 7,000 power plants in the United States, so is power generation (Source: EIA FAQ). Pick a place in the country, and I guarantee that you will be within eyeshot of electricity infrastructure. 100% of The United States is electrified, and our powerlines are everywhere (Source: World Bank).
If I were to ask, “where does your power come from?” most people would respond with blank stares, or maybe with the name of the utility: “PSE&G?” “ConEd?” “Pepco?” “I think I get a gas bill..” The general public knows little about how their electricity is produced, how their electricity demand fuels climate change, and how they can help to promote renewables.
Just like we don’t know the breakdown of gas from Saudi Arabia versus Canada in a given tank of gas, we too, as energy consumers don’t know the sources of our power. We are simply drawing from the elusive and complicated “grid.” Educated people, even those studying energy and the environment, generally cannot tell you the breakdown of the state or nation’s fuel supply, how it gets to them, and how they can take control of their personal energy security.
In New Jersey (NJ) today, 50% of electricity comes from natural gas plants (49.6% in 2015). 45% came from nuclear power plants, together making up 95% of the state’s power supply. In New York (NY), the power breakdown is similar- 41% of the state’s electricity is generated by natural gas, 32% from nuclear power, and 19% by conventional hydroelectricity (Source: EIA Net Generation By State and Type).
In the United States as a whole, electricity is generated principally at fossil-fueled and non-renewable sourced power plants, including natural gas, coal, and nuclear. Energy production, including heating and electricity, worldwide accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, a quarter just from one sector (Source: EPA, IPCC ). As a significant world energy consumer, and a critical player in the global energy sector, the United States and its energy consumers must be aware of its resources and consumption.
Electricity from renewables in The United States makes up only 9% of U.S. power supply, excluding hydropower (Source: EIA Renewables). If hydropower is included, that number goes up to 13%;, hydropower is controversial in its own vein, and considered renewable in some states and non-renewable in others (Source: Midwestern Energy News Hydropower RPS by State; Nat Geo Hydropower).
Transparency and conscientious consumption has taken hold in the food and clothing industries, but not in the energy industry, perhaps the most critical in regard to climate change. With more frequent and more extreme weather events due to climate change, customers are also increasingly vulnerable to power outages. Further, as demand for energy to fight the changing climate grows, greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector are likely to keep climbing too.
In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and even this week with winter storm Stella, people began to think about their power sources. During Sandy, NYC residents living below 39th street lost power. Most people knew if they were served by the substation at East 14th street, as it flooded and exploded, and left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark (Source: CBS NYC Utility Cuts Power to More Households in Sandy’s Aftermath). NY and 16 other states experienced power outages during Superstorm Sandy. 7 million people lost power in total, many people for over a week (Source: CBS Superstorm Sandy: More than 7 Million Without Power ).
Beyond the most extreme effects of the storm, fatality, it is clear that the storm and losing electricity is detrimental to day to day life- basic services, mobility and infrastructure, business. Sandy cost the NY and NJ over $71 billion in damages alone, not including losses in revenue and productivity from the destruction and temporarily disabled workforce. (Source: Reuters Sandy Costs). Many people, my dad included, invested in backup generators that run on natural gas or diesel to provide electricity and heat for when supply is compromised.
How can we protect ourselves- our communities, business and homes? The first step is staying informed and knowing your power source. The user is the missing link in shifting to a durable, more nimble, reliable grid supported by a strong clean energy economy. Now is a critical time to show the American public the American energy landscape, and I’m here to do just that. Check back here every Tuesday and Thursday for what you need to know about clean energy technologies, power plants and policies, and for stories of people working in the energy sector and everyday people carrying on with their electrified lives. Join me as I explore Electric America.
Molly Seltzer is a writer and photographer based in the NY area covering topics of energy and the environment. She is affiliated with the Rutgers Energy Institute and Greenhouse Gas Industries LLC. She has held positions in the green building consulting field and at non-profits researching energy policy and finance.
Questions, comments, corrections? Always welcome! Please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Love energy and photography? Check out my photographs of energy infrastructure here: http://www.seltzershots.com/energy/ and follow me on Instagram @seltzershots.
For more, check back here on Tuesdays and Thursdays for all you need to know about Electric America. Follow me @mollyaseltzer on Twitter for more energy updates!
For more about NYC electricity, Emily Rueb gives an in-depth look: NYTimes How NYC Gets Its Electricity
Don’t live in NY or NJ? Click the following link to see your state’s energy breakdown: EIA Net Generation By State and Type.
More on U.S. energy consumption? In total the country consumes 97.7 quadrillion btu annually. Check out EIA Energy Explained for more data.