Electrical Power Pressure Point
Climate Change Daily Government Policy Repost Urban Environmentalist

Electrical power, a climate change puzzle

Electricity is the magical elixir of our modern society. Without it, our cities would cease to function. Electric power is widespread because it is versatile and adaptable to a wide range of complex uses. But there is an energy efficiency loss when producing electrical power, and while electricity itself is emissions-free, its production often carries a substantial carbon footprint. 

Electric cars are becoming more popular, and many people point to them as emissions-free vehicles that are good for the environment. But the answer is not that simple. Using an electric vehicle in West Virginia reduces your carbon footprint by about 20 percent compared to gasoline-powered cars. However, carbon reduction for the same vehicle rises to 92 percent in the State of Washington. These differences reflect the sources of primary energy used to generate electricity. West Virginia is heavily dependent on coal power plants, but Washington relies on a lot of hydroelectric power.

Electricity is a secondary energy source derived from primary sources, including natural gas, coal, solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. Coal and natural gas account for about two-thirds of the electricity produced worldwide and also in the USA. But the use of fossil fuels for electrical power generation is significant, and a 2018 study by the EPA shows that electricity accounts for about 27% of the total U.S greenhouse emissions.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports that electricity generation accounts for about 40 percent of the country’s primary power usage. Demand will increase electricity’s slice of the pie to over 50 percent by 2040. Cleaner electricity could have a significant impact on climate change.  

Energy efficiency

Significant energy loss occurs in the production and transmission of electricity. The process of turning primary energy into secondary energy is costly. Energy loss at the power plant averages 62 percent, and transmission accounts for another 2 percent loss. So, by the time the electricity reaches an end-user, only 36 percent of the original power remains.

Despite its efficiency issues, electric power still offers a viable pathway for mitigating climate change. The key lies eliminating emissions at the power plants. Clean energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower only provide about 8 percent of the current electricity, but their contribution is rising. However, electricity produced from fossil fuels remains a stubbornly potent source of carbon emissions.

Electricity emissions

Electricity gives off no emissions when used but generates significant emissions during production. About 18 percent of the total electricity produced in the U.S. comes from renewables, 38 percent from natural gas, 23 percent from coal, 20 percent from nuclear, and 1 percent from petroleum. But only half of the renewable energy used is from truly clean sources. 

Eliminating greenhouse emissions at power plants allows electricity to become an emissions-free energy source. If we then move to 100 percent electric vehicles, transportation’s 28 percent contribution to greenhouse emissions falls dramatically. Encourage electrical power for more industry, commercial, and residential power needs, and their collective 34 percent of the carbon cost drops. But this is a tall order, and it would prove costly. End consumers would pay much of that cost. 

The future

Whether coal could ever be completely emissions-free is debatable. But work is underway now, near Houston, Texas, to build a prototype natural gas electric power plant that is emissions-free. Assuming the prototype works, then the technology allowing mostly emission-free electricity becomes available. But that only matters for climate change if we replace existing power plants. 

Since utilities are heavily regulated, switching to clean electricity generation requires that the regulators drive that change. But the regulators are closely tied to political power, and politicians have to sell their voters and their corporate financial donors on the idea of trading increases in the cost of electricity for decreased carbon emissions. The proposition of increasing everyone’s cost of living creates a problem for politicians who seek reelection. Proposal to pay significantly more for electricity will not build an enthusiastic voter base. Thus, the prospects for rapid structural change die on the vine, not for lack of good intentions. Instead it happens because of a reluctance to accept the cost of implementing those ideas and turning good intentions into reality.

The climate change puzzle is that, despite good intentions, there is very little enthusiasm for politicians and, hence, regulators implementing the costly changes that are needed. But without their leadership, there is little chance of rapid change.  Indeed, over time emission-free power plants will gradually replace older plants. However, with power plant life spans of up to 40 years or more, these changes won’t significantly impact emission reductions before 2050.

So, we remain with this climate change puzzle: We desire action to stop climate change, but no one wants to pay the price for change.


Controlling your carbon footprint – Sort of (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/02/03/controlling-your-carbon-footprint-sort-of/  Also:

Coal slumps as renewable energy surges (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/06/16/coal-slumps-as-renewable-energy-surges/  Also:


A $150 Million Power Plant Was Just Built in Texas. Humanity Should Pray It Succeeds (By KEVIN J. RYAN; INC.) – https://www.inc.com/kevin-j-ryan/net-power-zero-emissions-plant-global-warming.html  Also:

Feature Image: Port and lighthouse overnight storm with lightning in Port-la-Nouvelle (Modified) – By Maxime Raynal from France – Orage PLN, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42048641

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.

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