It’s 10 am and I have already used a light, a toaster, a stove, and the internet. I also plugged in my computer and took food out of the refrigerator. All of this without a thought as to where my electricity comes from besides “the wall”. This is my privilege living in a country with a reliable grid. I don’t think about the time of day, the season, or the weather; I just plug in and use.
Unfortunately, being so disconnected from the sources of electricity makes people careless. We don’t think about how much we use or where it is coming from except when we pay our electricity company.
So how much are we using? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2012 Americans used nearly 11,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. For perspective, that much electricity can light a standard 60 watt bulb continuously for 21 years!
Most of that electricity (68%) is produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum. There are two big problems with using these materials. The first is that they are in limited supply so we have to expend more and more energy to get them. And the methods we use (mining and fracking) are damaging to the environment. The second big problem is that they release large amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. In fact, electricity and heat generation are the largest producers of man made carbon dioxide emissions.
Luckily, these two problems have the same solution – switch to renewable energy sources. We’re slowly moving in the right direction by investing in nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, biomass, and solar electricity. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket; we need to diversify electricity production. We need to pursue all of these options to have the hope of making our electricity production carbon neutral.
In the coming weeks I’m going to explore how we make electricity from each of these sources (plus clean coal/carbon sequestration). I’ll also explain the science behind the sources and the pros and cons of each. Let me know if you have any questions you want me to answer.