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How energy actually gets used

This graph is the clearest visualization of our energy economy that I've seen (click for a larger version):


That graph comes by way of Keith Hennessey, who observes that "when battery technologies improve, the fuel and power worlds will blend in the U.S., and there will be strong and direct economic relationships between the production of electric power and the use of oil. Until that day, from an energy perspective, 'fossil fuels' conflates oil with coal and natural gas in a way that is at best confusing and at worst misleading. Substituting biofuels for oil or making vehicles more fuel efficient has almost no effect on the amount of coal or natural gas we use." And coal-fired power plants, as those who remember this graph will know, remain a bigger problem for carbon emissions than most people realize.

Graph credit: The University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 17, 2010; 12:14 PM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs , Energy  
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Does the loss that occurs for electricity generation and ICE in transportation count what is lost because you can't operate above the carnot efficiency? If so it makes it look like there is room for efficiency improvements, but that are only available by bending the laws of physics.

Posted by: yoyoy | June 17, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

The graph is (a small) part of a larger NAS set of pages on energy in the US

Posted by: bdballard | June 17, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

What's striking here is how almost the same amount of power is lost during electricity generation/distribution as is lost from the rest of the power systems.

Obviously the smart grid is a larger part of the solution than I had previously anticipated, as if it could capture even a modest amount of the approximately 70% power currently being lost in transmission it would go a long way.

Posted by: akusu | June 17, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Energy loss during generation & transmission is simply a matter of physics. There's not much that can easily be done to fix it, short of putting a windmill up in your backyard, solar panels on your roof, or a nuclear reactor in your neighborhood.

Posted by: jglcd | June 17, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

What do we do so that more Americans see this and understand this? When can we have 'elections' fought on policies which are mapped on this graph? When will we have our President pressing this graph in our face?

It is okay to make fun of Al Gore when he uses graphs & pictures in a speech. But is it not that in a complex society like ours we need our leaders to use such graphics to make relevant points?

Ultimately, part of the job for a politician is to convey the right information. This graph does that job so eloquently.

More please.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 17, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

This from the Hennessey article:

"I believe the legislation in scenario 1 would pass the House and Senate within a week or two, with overwhelming and possibly unanimous bipartisan majorities. The President could quickly unify the country and celebrate a wise bipartisan solution to preventing the recurrence of a painful problem. That would still leave the existing crisis, but the long-term policy issues would be solved."

Made me laugh out loud. Is it intended to be a joke?

And yes, we need a smarter grid, but we also need smarter urban planning and development. Density. Livable density. The energy loss in that graphic doesn't even include energy lost by consumers. We're a pretty wasteful society, overall.

Posted by: slag | June 17, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

It would be interesting to see the "where energy comes from" equivalent to this chart. For example, how much oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico? How does that compare to, say, residential oil use? Could any conceivable efficiency gains in houses that use oil for heating be comparable to what we pump from deepwater wells?

The vast majority of "Lost Energy" in the system occur because we are using thermal cycles (e.g., the Rankine cycle in power plants, Otto cycle in IC engines) that have efficiencies governed by thermodynamics. Unfortunately, the maximum possible efficiency for these cycles is the Carnot efficiency, which is in the range of 40-50%. So as long as we use thermal cycles, we are stuck with massive losses. There are some ways to bump up the efficiency with techniques like combined cycles and waste heat recovery (e.g., cogeneration), but those aren't in common use (much of our baseload generation is from coal plants that are decades old and not amenable to combined cycles).

Posted by: meander510 | June 17, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

for meander, here's the domestic monthly oil production

and the monthly oil imports by country of origin

Posted by: bdballard | June 17, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

This is a "Sankey Diagram." They are wonderful. Some resources:

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | June 17, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

It's a useful graphic and a useful discussion. The parallel useful discussion involves non-energy consumption of fossil-fuel (particularly oil) and other finite resources (particularly uranium).

As someone noted a few days ago, a plastic cell phone case (and the baggie for sous vide cooking) is a non-energy-producing (and, in fact, energy-consuming) oil consumption element, just as certain brilliant orange dyes (see are energy-consuming uranium users. At some point, the oil/uranium/etc becomes more valuable for fuel than for other applications... yet another foreseeable issue requiring long-term planning and pro-active response.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 17, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Jg: I understand the physic (beleive me) but that also doesn't change the fact that it's obviously an inneficient way to generate dirty energy. Smart grids will help, especially the idea I saw where electric vehicles will become a grid's power storage source overnight by lending their batteries out.

Posted by: akusu | June 17, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

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