September 26, 2016

The Numbers Behind Our Clean Power Plan Video (Or Lightning Bolts And The Saturn V Rocket!)

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Inside Energy recently made a video about what the Clean Power Plan means for you (if you haven’t seen it yet, go check it out!). And in that video, we used a lot of numbers: 98 quadrillion Btu (the total energy used in the United States last year), 100 lightning bolts (the amount of energy each American used last year…ish), 150,000 (the number of people employed in the U.S. Coal industry), etc.

In the video, we had mere seconds to share those numbers. But at Inside Energy, we like to get real nerdy about energy. So we’re sharing the stories behind those numbers.

Americans used 98 quadrillion BTUs last year

The U.S. used 97.53 quadrillion Btu of primary energy in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Primary energy is defined as how much energy is contained in the raw fuels we use (oil, coal, natural gas, wood), plus how much energy we generate from renewable resources (water, wind, sun). For a full definition, see EIA’s glossary. Note: A quadrillion is 10 to the 15th power.

It’s enough to send a Saturn V rocket to the moon every 26 seconds for a whole year

Saturn V was the rocket that took American astronauts to the moon. NASA’s Saturn V facts say: “A car that gets 48 kilometers (30 miles) to the gallon could drive around the world around 800 times with the amount of fuel the Saturn V used for a lunar landing mission.” Working backwards…

  • The Earth’s circumference is 24,900 miles
  • 24,900 miles x 800 = 19,920,000 miles
  • 19,920,000 miles / 30 miles / gallon = 664,000 gallons of gasoline
  • 1 gallon of gasoline has 120,405 Btu of energy (EIA)
  • So a Saturn V headed to the moon has 79,948,920,000 Btu
  • 98 x 10^15 Btu per year / 80 x 10^9 Btu per Saturn V = 1,219,929 Saturn Vs every year
  • 31,536,000 seconds in a year / 1,219,929 Saturn Vs gives us one Saturn V every 26 seconds(ish)

Each American uses roughly the energy of 100 lightning bolts every year

We have to admit, this is the fuzziest of all of our calculations. But we’re just going for a nice, easy visual metaphor! Estimates floating around the internet for the energy contained in a lightning bolt, including some from lightning experts, range from 1 million joules to “several billion joules” to 1 billion joules to 5 billion joules. For our purposes, let’s split the difference and go with 3 billion joules, which is 2.8 million Btu. Each American uses 303 million Btu per year. So that’s roughly 100 lightning bolts per person, per year.

40 of those lightning bolts go to making our electricity

This comes from EIA’s data on the total consumption of energy by sector (primary and secondary), which you can view here. The electricity sector consumed 38,109 trillion Btu, which is 39% of the 97,528 trillion Btu we use total.

The price you pay for each kilowatt-hour could go up three to seven percent

The EIA has released a preliminary analysis of the impacts of the Clean Power Plan on emissions, fuel generation mix, and prices – although the full report is still forthcoming. The report looks at many different scenarios, from one without any CPP at all, to different implementations (mass-based, rate-based, a mix), to tightening carbon targets over time beyond the CPP. Here’s what it says about the price of electricity: “Retail electricity prices are higher when the CPP is in place than when it is not, as the fuel and capital costs of complying with the rule by shifting to natural gas-fired generation, or by building new renewable capacity, are passed through to retail prices.”

You can download the EIA’s price projections here. The different scenarios show a retail electricity price increase ranging from 4.7% to 7.7% from 2015 to 2030 – and note that with no CPP, prices would increase 0.9%. Or, to put it another way, comparing the CPP cases against the no-CPP cases, the rules means prices are projected to be between 3.7% and 6.7% higher than they would otherwise be. After 2030, electricity prices flatten or decrease under the CPP, and the EIA writes that, “Prices remain, on average, 3% higher in constant dollars…than in the No CPP case.”

Comparison of electricity prices by fuel source: The cost of wind and solar is dropping, but natural gas is still cheapest (for now)

There are a lot of ways to analyze how much electricity costs to generate by fuel type. The EIA, Lazard, Bloomberg/World Energy Council and Berkeley Labs all of their own estimates (to name just a few). We’re using the EIA’s analysis of “levelized costs of electricity” for new sources. It comes with many caveats, such as this one:

The existing resource mix in a region can directly impact the economic viability of a new investment through its effect on the economics surrounding the displacement of existing resources. For example, a wind resource that would primarily displace existing natural gas generation will usually have a different economic value than one that would displace existing coal generation.

The key thing to note here is that there are regional variations in how much it costs to generate electricity – wind may be cheaper in a very windy place, etc. But for consistency, we used the EIA’s national estimates for the U.S., and we downloaded them from 2010 to 2016. We then adjusted for inflation and put all of the estimates in 2015 dollars. Here is a table Inside Energy compiled of the price per kWh over time by fuel source – various types of coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and nuclear generation. Note: You can also see each year, along with a link to the original report from the EIA, in the other tabs, as well as the data used to do the inflation adjustment.

Here’s a graph of how those prices have changed over time:


This animation shows the levelized cost of energy for new power sources, in 2015 dollars per MWh. Data is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook, 2010 to 2016. Values have been adjusted for inflation. This chart shows advanced coal with carbon capture and storage, advanced combined cycle natural gas with carbon capture and storage, hydroelectric, advanced nuclear, solar PV, and onshore wind. For more technologies (i.e. natural gas combustion turbines, offshore wind, concentrating solar), see this table.


There’s a lot of variation globally in terms of how much electricity costs by source. This graph from a 2013 Bloomberg/World Energy Council shows global ranges and averages for wind, natural gas, solar, coal and nuclear technologies:

Source: "World Energy Perspective: Cost of Energy Technologies," World Energy Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Source: “World Energy Perspective: Cost of Energy Technologies,” World Energy Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The bottom line is that the cost of renewable generation has been dropping. And that’s especially true for wind, which has reached the point of being nearly price competitive with coal and natural gas.

150,000 people work in the coal industry

Coal industry employment is another area where estimates vary:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, 64,135 people were employed in the coal mining industry in 2015, down from 72,127 in 2014. And that number has continued to drop rapidly as coal companies face bankruptcies and other financial distress. The most recent data available, from March 2016, shows employment at 51,569 miners.
  • The U.S. Environmental Information Administration lists the nationwide coal mining workforce at 74,931 people for 2014.
  • The Mine and Safety Health Administration, as cited by the National Mining Association, lists 102,804 coal workers in 2015 and 116,010 in 2014.

As for coal power plants, a paper by Edward Louie and Joshua Pearce published in the journal Energy Economics says,

While there are no official published numbers on the employees working in coal power plants, studies found that coal-fired power plants employ around 0.18 people in operations and maintenance on a permanent basis per MW (Beamon & Leckey, 1999; Singh & Fehrs, 2001). Given there is 336,341 MW of coal generator capacity in the U.S. (U.S. EIA, 2013b), the number of people employed by coal-fired power plants is therefore around 60,541.

According to the EIA, in 2014, the coal generating capacity was 300,700 MW – representing 54,126 jobs if we use the same logic.

If we add the various coal mining employment estimates and coal power plant jobs together for 2014 (the most recent year where we have both generating capacity and coal mining employment), we get a range from 126,253 to 170,136, which averages to around 150,000. Note that the number of people working in coal mines and coal power plants has been dropping dramatically, even before the CPP was announced.

The Clean Power Plan will decarbonize 8 lightning bolts

Of course, our personal energy use can’t really be converted to lightning bolts. But here’s our logic: In 2015, 67 percent of U.S. electricity generation came from fossil fuels, according to the EIA. That means of our 40 lightning bolts, about 13 are already carbon free (wind, solar, nuclear, hydro).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Clean Power Plan will reduce carbon emissions from the power sector 30 percent by 2030 – so of our remaining 27 fossil fuel lightning bolts, 8 will become carbon-free.

However, one more caveat: The CPP will reduce carbon 30% from 2005 levels. We’re already well on our way, as our electricity-related carbon emissions have already dropped 21 percent since they peaked in 2007. So we’ve got a head start, mostly due to rise of natural gas-fired power.

Our estimate is rough, but hey, so are lightning bolts.

The U.S. is the second-largest carbon polluter in the world

According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the top five countries based on total 2013 carbon dioxide emissions are: China, U.S., India, Russia, Japan, Germany.

Curious about other numbers behind the Clean Power Plan…or any energy story? Let us know!