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Where does our electricity come from?

In 1999 in the United States we produced electricity from 6 large categories.

Coal - 56%(1)
2.095 pounds of CO2 are expelled into the atmosphere for every kilowatt produced. (2) This is our most polluting and most plentiful fossil fuel used to generate electricity. In addition, the tiny particles that come out of the smoke stacks have been proven to cause cancer. (6) In a typical fossil fuel burning power plant about one-third of the energy contained in the fuel is converted into electricity, while the remainder is emitted as waste heat. CO2 emissions from coal-fired electricity generation comprise nearly 80 percent of the total CO2 emissions produced by the generation of electricity in the U.S., while the share of electricity generation from coal was just over 50% in 1999. (2)

Nuclear - 22.38%(1)
No CO2 is expelled into the atmosphere directly from nuclear fission, but when...

"the entire nuclear fuel cycle and plant construction are taken into account, nuclear energy produces 4 or 5 times the emissions of renewable energy. You need to look at uranium mining and milling, processing, enrichment, fuel fabrication, transportation from centralized manufacturing sites, reactor construction, and nuke waste disposal. All these things are energy intensive.

For example, the Paducah, New York, uranium enrichment plant uses so much energy that it has a dedicated coal-fired electricity generating plant to meet its needs. Further, the plant is the nation's largest contributor of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which destroy the ozone layer that protects our fragile environment from harmful rays of sun."
- Michael Welch, January 2002 issue, Home Power Magazine.

Where will the radioactive waste go? Nobody knows for sure, but a mountain in Nevada is the only place still under serious consideration (Nevada gets none of it's electricity from nuclear power plants). Glad I don't live in Nevada. We've had nuclear reactors in the U.S. for decades and we still haven't found a place to put the waste. Hmmm...

Natural Gas - 9.3%(1)
1.321 pounds of CO2 are expelled into the atmosphere for every kilowatt produced. (2) Natural gas has been a very plentiful source of energy until recently. There are estimates that half of the natural gas on the planet has been unused, which means we have a huge amount left over. However, what is left in the ground is in much smaller pockets than what has been extracted in the past. This means that in Texas for example, 17 new gas drills have to be installed every day in order to keep up with production. That starts to get expensive. We are the largest importer of natural gas in the world, almost entirely from Canada. (4) What happens when Canada needs more money and raises prices? What happens when Canadians decide they need to hold on to their domestic production of natural gas? Only a few companies in the United States control the natural gas pipelines that provide us with this resource, making us extremely vulnerable to price hikes. The 280 million people in the U.S. use the same amount of natural gas as 3 billion people in Europe and Asia. Conservation would seem like a good idea, but alas, virtually all of the new power plants being built in the U.S. burn natural gas. (4)

Hydroelectric - 9.3%(1)
This source of electricity is particularly popular in the West and Northwest. The environmental costs of hydroelectric dams are often severely underestimated. Entire ecosystems are destroyed when rivers vital to local habitat for animals and plants become lakes, and cover many square miles of land. Spawning of fish species is hampered even with human efforts to try and help (often we make a bigger mess than we had when we started trying to offset our own impact). Idaho gets virtually all of its electricity (93.3%) from water falling at man-made dams. (5) What happens to 1 million people in Idaho when terrorists bomb hydroelectric dams? Hospitals, stoplights, businesses, homes without power indefinitely is what happens, not to mention thousands of people down stream from the dams drowned. Don't think it's possible? Remember September 11th, very few people thought that was possible, and the ones that did were ignored. One other disadvantage of hydro is droughts. No water, no electricity. Some people like to think of large-scale hydroelectric power as renewable. Not me. Small-scale or "Micro-Hydroelectric Generation" is an environmentally friendly way to make electricity. It provides electricity on site with no environmental impact.

Petroleum - 3%(1)
1.915 pounds of CO2 are expelled into the atmosphere for every kilowatt produced. (2) Looking at the statistics, it doesn't seem like we use much petroleum for electricity. On a nationwide average, we do not use very much for electricity. However, as an example of it depends where you are, in Hawaii they produce 76.4% of their electricity by burning petroleum. They produce 14.2% from burning coal, 1.1% from hydroelectric, .5% from natural gas, and 7.8% from "Other". (5) This, in a state that is perfectly situated for producing all of their electricity from solar and wind. (3) Petroleum provides 39% of the U.S. total energy. Most of that is burned in cars. (1) As Americans, we each consume 150 pounds of petroleum a week and nearly 60% of that is imported. Domestic production of petroleum peaked in 1970. (4) Maybe that should have told us something. Corporate oil has a strangle hold on our government, our population, and the environment. Washington D.C. produces all of its electricity (that's right, 100%) with two petroleum burning power plants.(5)

Biomass/other - .02%(1)
Biomass/other includes: wood and waste, geothermal, solar and wind. The wood and waste portion of the Biomass category produce about 1.3 pounds of CO2 for every kilowatt produced. (2) Solar and wind produce no greenhouse gasses in production of electricity and 4 or 5 times less impact on the environment than nuclear. (See above quote in the nuclear section of this article) There is some environmental impact even from the production of photovoltaic modules (electric producing solar panels). Boron and phosphorous have to be mined for use in small amounts for solar cell production. Also, silicone (one of the most plentiful substances on earth) is used as the semiconductor in solar cells. Taking all that into account, a typical photovoltaic module will pay for itself environmentally in 2 to 4 years. Renewables are the way to go. Like the Lorax said, "Unless".

Imported - .02%(1)
Yes, we import electricity, almost entirely from Canada.

68% of the electricity produced in the U.S. is wasted.
Only 32% of the electricity produced in power plants is actually distributed. (1) That's because making electricity in a power plant takes a lot of electricity, and about 9% of the electricity produced is lost traveling over transmission and distribution lines. Taking this into account, burning coal produces 6.285 pounds of CO2 emissions for every kilowatt-hour of electricity distributed, or actually used. Take all of the other types of fossil fuel we use and multiply the pounds of CO2 emissions by 3 for an accurate cost to the environment. This electricity goes to our computers that are left on, lights our used car lots, and keeps empty rooms in our homes well lit. A typical refrigerator in a coal-burning power plants vicinity, that uses 2 kilowatts per day, is responsible for 4,588 pounds of CO2 being released into our atmosphere each year, in its lifetime (15 years), 35 tons.

It gets worse.
If you take into account that only one-third of the energy in fossil fuel is converted into electricity at a typical power plant, and only one-third of the electricity ever reaches it's destination, i.e., your T.V. set, only one-ninth of the energy in fossil fuel is converted into distributed electricity. That's 11.11%. Ouch! That's less efficient than a typical solar cell, which converts about 15% of the sun's rays into electricity. The difference is, solar cells don't pollute. Additionally, coal has to be mined, which causes injuries and deaths every year. Petroleum and natural gas have to be drilled, offshore or on land, causing destruction of the environment. Oil refineries are regularly releasing toxic gasses into our atmosphere. Oil spills have destroyed ecosystems and local economies. Renewable energy offers none of these problems. Why aren't we using more of it? Nobody owns the sun or the wind. Corporations can't sell it, so they'll do anything they can to prevent us from having it.

Where do you live?
Where you live has a great deal to do with where your electricity comes from. For example, in California in 1999 we produced: 47.2% from natural gas, 21.1% from hydroelectric, 17.4% from nuclear, 11.9% from "other", 1.2% from coal and 1.1% from petroleum. (5) Other states use very different and even more polluting sources for their electricity.

Some other states (all data is from 1999)(5):

New Mexico:(Where my brother Eric's solar panels are)
86.1% coal
13% natural gas
.7% hydroelectric
.1% petroleum

36.3% coal
23% natural gas
19.9% petroleum
16.9% nuclear
3.9% "other"
.1% hydroelectric

68.2% coal
14.1% nuclear
13% natural gas
2.7% "other"
1.4% petroleum
.5% hydroelectric

57.5% coal
36.4% nuclear
2.2% natural gas
1.8% petroleum
1.5% other
.8% hydroelectric

New York
32.1% natural gas
25.6% nuclear
16.3% hydroelectric
14.8% coal
9.2% petroleum
1.9% "other"

49.2% natural gas
39.2% coal
10.2% nuclear
.6% petroleum
.5% "other"
.3% hydroelectric

West Virginia
98.6% coal
1% hydroelectric
.3% natural gas
.2% petroleum

71.1% nuclear
20.9% hydroelectric
7.1% "other" (some of this is a significant amount of renewables)
.4% petroleum .3% natural gas

To see other states electrical production information, click here

Back to Conservation

Sources for this Article:
(1)U.S. Energy Flow 1999 (chart), March 2001 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

(2)Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Generation of Electric Power in the United States, July 2000, Department of Energy

(3)Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy, Daniel M. Berman & John T. O'Connor, 1996

(4)U.S. Energy Flow - In the Belly of the Beast, Randy Udall, February/March 2002 Issue - Home Power Magazine


(6)Lung Cancer, Cardiopulmonary Mortality, and Long-term Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution, Arden Pope III, PhD; Richard T. Burnett, PhD; Michael J. Thun, MD; Eugenia E. Calle, PhD; Daniel Krewski, PhD; Kazuhiko Ito, PhD; George D. Thurston, ScD - Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 287 No. 9, March 6, 2002

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