Sometimes energy makes headlines, sometimes it doesn’t. But it almost always has important implications for the global economy, the environment, and our day-to-day lives.
Here are 10 energy statistics from 2012 that capture some of the most noteworthy trends of the year, and that will shape the energy world in the years to come.
Natural gas, one of the three key fossil fuels in our energy economy (along with coal and petroleum), continues to ascend as a major force.
One prominent example: during the month of April, for the first time ever documented in the US, the amount of electrical generation from natural gas was equal to the amount generated from coal, which has historically been the country’s predominant fuel for power plants. This moment has been on its way for a few years now, as natural gas’ share of electricity generation has been steadily increasing, while coal’s share has been steadily declining (now around 42% on average, down from 52% in 2000).
The fuel’s growing role in the US is tied to the recent boom in gas production from previously untapped shale formations (e.g. in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas), which as of September 2012 account for 35% of the country’s dry natural gas production (compared to just 2% ten years ago). The plentiful supply of natural gas helped cause the fuel’s price to dip to a ten-year low earlier this year ($2.75 per thousand cubic feet), making it more competitive relative to other energy supply sources, including renewable energy (which now accounts for 13% of US electricity generation, mostly in the form of hydropower).
Smartphone sales volumes in 2012 were huge – estimated at 717 million retail shipments worldwide (a 45% lift over last year).
But their energy consumption is minuscule.
A study by Opower in September revealed that charging the iPhone 5 costs just $0.41 per year, and charging the Droid Galaxy SIII costs just $0.53.
The collective energy demand of all those phones is nothing to sneeze at, but in the bigger picture, a global increase in smartphone usage is likely to cause lower overall energy consumption…
How so? Many consumers now use their smartphones to do things (e.g. internet, media, games) that they used to do on bigger, energy-hogging devices (e.g. computers, televisions, and game consoles).
According to a report published in November by the International Energy Agency, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer by 2017, and will become a net oil exporter by 2030. The US will see a significant increase in its onshore crude oil production over the next decade, while improved fuel efficiency in transportation will also lead to a gradual decrease in oil imports.
These two trends indicate that the country will become less reliant on energy imports. The US today imports about one-fifth of its total energy needs, but is projected to be more than 90% self-sufficient in how it consumes energy by 2040.
2012 was a sizzling year. Through the end of November, the year’s national average temperature was 3.3°F above the 20th-century average, and 1.0°F warmer than the previous record-setting January-November period (in 1934).
Across the country, blistering temperatures triggered new records for hourly electricity demand in multiple states, from Idaho to the Carolinas. Outlier’s analysis shows that when temperatures soar, home energy consumption can spike even higher, as Americans crank up their air-conditioners: compared with an average summer day, homes use up to 40% more electricity when the mercury surges past 100°F.
Nor is it cheap to address this dynamic. To ensure smooth and cost-effective management of the electric grid on extreme-heat days, US-based utility companies are budgeting around $1.3 billion per year on programs that are specifically designed to address peak energy demand.
In addition, stricter fuel economy standards, adopted by Congress in a bipartisan bill in 2007, have now taken effect and will rise to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The European Union’s average auto fuel efficiency is already around that level, and is headed toward 48.6 mpg by 2015.
Hybrid and electric vehicles are on the rise too. November was the biggest ever month for electric-vehicle sales in the US, pushing the year-to-date sales figure to 47,500. Though that’s only around 0.4% of US automotive sales this year, utilities have indicated that the national electricity grid is prepared for those numbers to grow significantly.
Utilities around the world continue to undergo an infrastructural transformation that is changing the way customers and energy companies interact with energy data.
The number of smart meters in the US has grown more than fivefold during the last 5 years. There are now more than 36 million US homes with smart meters, which enable real-time communication of electricity usage data (and in some cases natural gas data, too). Real-time energy information can offer benefits to utility companies (e.g. pinpointing outages and monitoring power quality) as well as customers (e.g. understanding one’s usage patterns can empower customers to shift energy usage to times of day when energy prices may be lower).
It’s projected that more than half of US households will have a smart meter by mid-decade. And market researchers envision that the worldwide market for smart grid data analytics will grow steadily through 2020, with cumulative worldwide spending from 2012-2020 totaling more than $34 billion.
Two new nuclear reactors are expected to go online in Georgia by 2017, after they received federal regulatory approval this February – marking the first time since 1978 that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has granted a license to build a new reactor.
The project cost for getting these reactors built and online is estimated at $14 billion; the reactors will be able to produce 2,200 megawatts of power.
Nuclear power provides the US with about 18% of its electricity. Of the 104 operating nuclear reactors at 64 plants across the US, about half are over 30 years old. The reactors now under construction in Georgia are the first among many that are being contemplated: 16 other plants across the country have applications with the the NRC to build 25 new reactors.
Elsewhere in the world, Japan has responded to its March 2011 Fukushima incident by shifting away from nuclear energy. Just two years ago, around 50 nuclear reactors generated around 30% of the country’s electricity. As of this week, only 2 of them are in operation, while the others are undergoing safety review. The Japanese government announced in September that it plans to phase out its reliance on nuclear power by around 2040. Germany, Switzerland, and France have also signaled an intention to shift away from nuclear generation in the coming decades.
In the latest update to its analysis on US energy flows, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory released a report in October showing that despite improvements in technology and efficiency, the US still wastes more energy than it uses. The country is just 43.8% energy efficient.
Take a look at the energy flow diagram below. Of the 97.3 quadrillion British Thermal Units (known as “quads”) of raw energy inputs that flowed into the US economy in 2011, only 41.7 quads were constructively used at the end of the day (as “energy services”). The other 55.6 quads were, in essence, wasted. This waste, summarized in the top right of the flow diagram below, is euphemistically classified as “rejected energy.”
Most of the economy’s energy waste stems from the electricity production sector (because most power plants are relatively inefficient) and the transportation sector (internal-combustion vehicles are relatively inefficient, but as indicated above, they are getting better).
A reduction in consumption by 1.7 terawatt hours (i.e. 1.7 billion kilowatt hours) translates into reducing household electric and gas bills by nearly $200 million, and cutting greenhouse gas pollution by an amount equivalent to taking 250,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.
In early 2013, Opower will hit a cumulative energy savings milestone of 2 terawatt hours. From there, we’ll keep up the momentum throughout the year, doing our part to empower customers in the US and around the globe to become more energy efficient.
We’re confident that our efforts will, at the very least, help move our economy toward a future in which it uses more energy than it wastes (see 56.2% statistic above).
Special thanks to Katie DeWitt, David Moore, Efrat Levush, Ashley Sudney, and Peter Kjeldgaard.
Follow @OpowerOutlier on Twitter
Author’s note: The analysis and commentary presented above solely reflect the views of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of Opower’s utility partners.