Recently, dozens of Duke undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of programs came together for a two-session crash course on the energy industry, delivered by Dr. Lincoln Pratson and Dr. Tim Johnson of the Nicholas School of the Environment. The fall 2019 Energy Boot Camp provided students with an overview of the oil and gas, electric power, and transportation sectors, offering insights on current energy trends and challenges. Here are a few key takeaways that may surprise those new to the energy space:
1. As electric vehicles gain market share, roads could get worse. Why is that? Almost everywhere in the United States, we pay a tax of about $0.30 to $0.75 on each gallon of gasoline we buy. The revenue generated by this gas tax goes towards maintaining local roads. Right now, EV drivers overall purchase much less gas relative to the amount they drive. As EV penetration grows, policy makers will need to rethink how we fund road maintenance and improvement.
2. Two thirds of the electricity generated in the U.S. is wasted. This may seem like a huge portion— because it is! Another way to think about this is that all the energy consumed in the U.S. represents only one-third of the energy our power plants produce. How are we so wasteful? Well, physics takes some of the blame. As electricity travels through power lines, energy is lost in the form of heat. The copper we use for these wires is one of the best conductors available, but no material is a perfect conductor. Energy is then lost as electricity gets converted into different energy forms like mechanical energy in motors or thermal energy in light bulbs and space heaters. Because of this, energy efficiency measures like installing LED light bulbs and better insulating our homes are some of the most effective ways we can reduce our energy consumption and carbon footprint.
3. Natural gas now generates more electricity than coal. For most of the history of our modern energy system, coal provided the fuel for the majority of our electric generation. But in the last few years, natural gas has overtaken coal to become the most used fuel for electric generation in the United States. Low natural gas prices driven by the fracking boom have made natural gas competitive domestically and even allowed the U.S. to start exporting natural gas. On one hand, this is good news, because natural gas has a lower greenhouse gas footprint than coal. But on the other hand, the new economics of natural gas is driving investment in more natural gas power plants and infrastructure, which locks us into decades of fossil fuel consumption and defers the development of renewable resources like solar and wind.
4. China has outpaced the United States as the world’s top emitter. In 2005, China passed the U.S. in terms of total carbon emissions from electricity generation. Electricity demand has continued to increase as China has risen to economic dominance and lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty. In general, as countries become more developed, energy consumption per capita tends to increase. And in this category, the U.S. still reigns supreme. But given China’s heavy reliance on coal to generate power, we can expect to see their emissions continue to rise.
5. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have been declining since 2007. While a combination of factors are responsible, one related trend is the leveling out of electricity demand starting at around the same time. This is a huge deal. For as far back as we have data, electricity demand has increased steadily year after year, and the system itself has been built around this assumption of sustained growth. Electric utilities, for example, are promised a certain return on their investments to expand energy infrastructure. With a diminishing need to make large investments in poles, power lines, and substations, many states are beginning to explore performance based ratemaking. With this type of business model, utilities would be rewarded for their ability to excel in key metrics like energy efficiency, customer satisfaction, and emissions reductions.
Ian Reichardt is a first-year student in the master of environmental management program at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and a graduate assistant for the Duke University Energy Initiative.