In order to understand solutions to the climate crisis, including the potential role of nuclear energy, it is essential to understand our current and future demand and supply of electricity. There are of course entire books that have been written about just small subtopics of electricity, so please consider this post as a guidance.
Electricity is the most refined and concentrated form of energy available to us. We can adjust its use in extremely small quantities. We can store it. We can generate it directly from sunlight without moving parts. We can transmit it in automated fashion over long distances (admittedly with losses). We can use it to easily create light, heat, force, computation. We simply have no other form of energy that comes even close to it. Electricity is a fundamental aspect of nature (it is one of the quantum fields) and our abilities to understand and use are the result some of the most beautiful breakthroughs in science.
So where we use electricity today in the United States? Here is a breakdown by major category over time
Several points here are important. First, we have massively increased our electricity demand since the 1950s. Second, the demand has actually been flat for about a decade, but has just started to tick up. Third, industrial use is smaller than one might have expected but is still about a quarter of total. Fourth, transportation use is tiny so far.
Let’s double click for a moment on the residential consumption. What do households use electricity for?
As it turns about half is used for some form of heating or cooling. Lighting accounts for a paltry 6.2% and all other uses is a massive category of nearly 40%.
What about the commercial sector? It looks like this
Here the heating and cooling use cases add up to a bit shy of 40%. Lighting plus office equipment including computers make up about a quarter. Again the all other use category is quite big at over a third.
Now before going into why these demand patterns are likely to change, here is a breakdown of where electricity comes from in the US over the last two decades
While this a bit small one can see quite clearly that in the US the biggest components of electricity generation are still carbon based. Thankfully there is a big reduction in coal (the coal), much of that has been compensated by increases in natural gas. And while solar has been growing (the light blue line) it is still small. Nuclear, the yellow line has been flat, but is a meaningful component of US electricity production.
In the next post, I will look at why the demand for electricity will have to increase substantially if we want to emit less carbon. And as should be obvious from the chart immediately above, we have a long way to go to make cleaner electricity in the US.