Energy Flows in the U.S.

While in D.C. over Memorial Day weekend I visited the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences.  The museum itself was very small and really only consisted of two exhibits; one on infectious diseases and one on Global Warming.  They did have a table set up at the entry that showed the difference between LEDs, CFLs, and incandescent lights, so that was neat.

However, I picked up some information they had on energy titled, "What you need to know about Energy".  The most interesting thing in the handout was a chart on Energy Flows that was produced by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).  This literature then led me to the National Academy of Science website that is based on energy. This site is also called "What You Need to Know about Energy" and has an interactive Energy Flow chart (seen at the top of the post) that is based on the Energy Flow chart from LLNL from 2008, which is seen at the bottom of the post.

The chart developed by LLNL is one of the greatest representations of how we use energy and how energy flows through our society that I can think of.  I wrote about the importance of being able to visualize energy on the Energy Mind Map post, where I said:

In the 2008 presidential elections, when the candidates were asked how America could ween itself off oil, they both mentioned using nuclear power; which is fine as long as they meant converting our cars to battery or hydrogen power and using nuclear to produce hydrogen or charge the battery….but I don’t think that’s what they meant.   I’m guessing they didn’t know that only a small percentage of oil is used to create electricity (1.6 % as of 2007); which is the only way we use Nuclear (aside from a few submarines).

If the most powerful person in the world has trouble grasping the complexities of how we generate, transport, and use energy, how is the average Joe/Jane supposed  to grasp it?

If I were at the presidential debate, I would have held up the Energy Flow chart and said:

Mr. Presidential Candidate, as you can see from the Energy Flow chart, the majority of Oil is used in Transportation and Industrial applications, and this is something that Nuclear has no involvement in!  How is building more Nuclear plants (which I actually don't oppose) going to help us wean ourselves of Oil?  Please provide real answers to the questions, and not political talking points.  And if you need to learn more about how we use energy, which you obviously do, please read the Mapawatt Blog!

And then I would be promptly escorted out of the debate.

The energy flow chart from the Academy of Sciences (click on the picture at the top of the post) is interactive, and you can find out more information as you move around the chart.   You can click on each energy source to learn more about it, and then follow the flow to learn more about each specific end use.  The end uses include Residential, Industrial, Commercial, and Transportation.  What I really like is how the chart breaks out Electricity, which is actually a secondary form of energy.

One example of using the interactive Energy Flow chart: I was curious as to why Industry uses so much Oil, so after clicking on Oil, and then following the Industry arrow I saw this:

After the Gulf Oil Spill, I wonder if more industries will find alternatives to Oil for their dishwashing liquids, tires, eyeglasses, heart valves, etc...

One area that is probably too small to include in the chart but will hopefully make up a bigger mix in the future is solar thermal heating for commercial applications.  If you follow the Solar flow in the interactive chart, you realize it flows only to Electricity and Residential.  I actually worked on one of the largest commercial solar thermal water heating projects in Georgia in the summer of 2009, so maybe we need a tiny, tiny sliver flowing from Solar to Commercial!

It is tools like the energy flow chart from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the National Academy of Science that help us understand how we use energy.  Once we have that knowledge, we can make better informed decisions at the voting booth, in the stock market, in business decisions, and in our daily lives.

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"Mr. Presidential Candidate, as you can see from the Energy Flow chart, the majority of Oil is used in Transportation and Industrial applications, and this is something that Nuclear has no involvement in!" True, currently. What needs to happen is to build reactors for the production of dimethyl ether (DME) as a transportation fuel. Several countries are beginning to blend DME in to their liquid transportation fuels, and internal combustion engines can be readily adapted to it. DME has a number of desirable properties, and can be introduced into the existing liquid fuel infrastructure.
Methanol is also an excellent energy carrier if you generate it by the catalytic hydrogenation of CO2 with H2 produced through H20 electrolysis using electricity generated by nuclear power. It runs in vehicles with little modification and can be used to produce olefins for producing plastics and other artificial materials usually derived from petroleum. See Dr. George Olah's book, The Methanol Economy. Here is a link to the wikipedia entry about the Methanol Economy.
For vehicles, there is also lots of lost energy in the drivetrain through friction and even more if you take into consideration that you are really just trying to move your body from point A to point B and the car and fuel are what get you there. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has some good lectures on wasted energy in industry and transportation as part of his Stanford Lecture Series. See the media section of
What does the big grey block of 57.05 unused quads represent? Is that we are only just over 40% efficient in our use of energy?
Most of all that 'unused' energy is waste heat lost from the burning of fuel. Most of the energy a nuclear, natural gas, or coal plant goes right up and out of those cooling towers, as part of the combustion process (fossil fuel) or as steam, after it us used to cool the reactor. The same goes for the waste energy from transportation. It's the waste heat that comes out of your combustion engine's radiator and tailpipe.

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