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Background Information on Energy Video Pilot

by February 28, 2011

This post supports a new video contest that we are launching with partner Tongal this week on the subject of energy. This is to be the introductory contest for the forthcoming Dialogue Earth Energy Challenge, in which we expect to tackle 10 topics related to energy in 10 video contests spread out over as many months.

In that this is meant to be an introductory video, we realize it cannot do everything—especially because we are asking storytellers to limit their pieces to 90 seconds. Yet, we believe that the larger Energy Challenge needs a gateway video. It should draw people in, eventually inspiring them to click on another video or two to learn more about the details of a particular energy source, etc.


Where do we get our energy from? The graphic above, developed by Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), is a fantastic summary of U.S. energy usage in 2009. It is undoubtedly still a good synopsis. There’s a lot going on, so I’ll pull out some key elements. Basically, you can see how much energy comes from the various sources on the far left, and how much of that energy flows into electricity production (orange box at top center) and how energy use breaks down between residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors (pink boxes toward the right).

Here’s a summary  graph, based on the LLNL energy map above, showing how different energy sources factored into to total 2009 U.S. energy use.



Petroleum is the largest component (37%), nearly double the contribution from coal (21%). The “other” category is for biomass, hydro-power, wind, geothermal, and solar—all of which are show in the graph directly below.



Switching now to look at the energy sources that go into electricity production, the story is considerably different than the total energy use above.



Whereas petroleum is the largest component of over all U.S. energy use, coal is by far the dominant energy source for U.S. electricity generation (48%). Nuclear comes in just over 20%, a bit ahead of natural gas. Wind and solar currently have small contributions to the total—about 2% and 0.03%, respectively.

How is energy used in different sectors of society? The following graph shows the breakdown of energy use by the different sectors. The U.S. transportation sector uses nearly 40% and commercial uses the least at 12%.



From the energy map presented above, it is clear that petroleum is the dominant source of energy in the transportation sector, making up just shy of 95% of the energy. The other sectors have more of a mix of energy sources.

How much energy is lost due to inefficiencies in the system? Again, looking at the energy map above, there’s a large network of light gray lines feeding into a box called “rejected energy.” In a gasoline powered automobile, about 2/3 of the energy value of the gasoline you put in the tank is lost as heat or otherwise does not contribute to moving the car from point A to B. Similarly, in our overall energy system, there are considerable losses—nearly 60%—that fall into the category of “rejected energy” on the map above.

What are fossil fuels, and what are not? Contrary to opinion held by nearly half of Americans (as reported in a recent Yale study), fossil fuels are not derived from the fossilized remains of dinosaurs. Rather, petroleum, natural gas, and goal are derived from ancient deposits of plants and in some cases tiny animals. When bio-based material is used soon after it was created, that’s called biomass energy. Solar, wind, and geothermal are energy sources that more-or-less can be continually tapped without running out, although there are certainly limitations. Finally, nuclear energy is derived from the energy of splitting atoms.

How do we move energy around? In truth, in just about every way imaginable. Petroleum is moved around by pipeline, ship, truck, and military even moves it around by plane. Electricity is moved around via power lines that make up the national electrical grid. Electrical energy is stored in batteries, and to the extent we move these batteries around, we are moving electrical energy with batteries.

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