Monday, September 5, 2011

Regional electricity sources

8-14-12 -- This essay contains numerical errors due to an error in software I wrote for extracting summary information from an EIA spreadsheet.  I'm leaving the erroneous figures here in the interests of honesty -- I made a mistake.  A corrected version of this piece has been added.

Earlier this year I posted a piece that observed that in the US, nuclear power was largely an Eastern phenomenon.  I was curious about other differences in the sources for electrical power in the East and West portions of the US.  The EIA publishes numbers for electricity generation by state and "fuel".  Several caveats go with the following discussion:
  • Figures are for calendar year 2007, the last year before the recession.
  • Hawaii and Alaska are excluded.
  • "West" is the 11 states from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, "East" is the other 37 contiguous states.
  • Pumped-hydro power is excluded -- it's minor and in some states has a negative value, which just confuses things.
The first thing that jumps out of the aggregate numbers is that the West generates only 8.9% of the total, while the East generates 91.1%.  The West's population, based on June 2007 figures from the Census Bureau, was almost 23% of the population total for the 48 contiguous states, so the share of generation is much less than I had expected.  I can think of a variety of possible reasons for the difference.  In no particular order: more moderate climate; less energy-intense economies (eg, less heavy manufacturing); and newer, more-efficient infrastructure such as housing.

The share provided by the five largest sources of generation for the West and East are shown in the following table.  As expected, there are fairly dramatic differences between the two regions.  The East depends much more on coal and nuclear (about 70% of their total) than the West does (about 40%).  If conventional hydro power is counted as renewable, then the West gets about one-quarter of its electricity from renewable sources.  Western wind, with a value of 0.0181, was close behind geothermal as a renewable source in 2007, and has almost certainly moved into the fifth spot by today.

The next table shows the top ten sources of electricity by region and source overall.  Depending on your biases, the table is making any of several different points.  I'll stick to the one that says the table shows the need for two distinct energy policies (at least with respect to electricity) in the US, one for the West and one for the East.  The problems of replacing the power from an aging fleet of nuclear reactors is an Eastern problem.  The problems of replacing large amounts of coal generation in order to address climate change issues is an Eastern problem.  When the time comes -- and I believe it will -- when the East requires a heavy dose of austerity, in terms of sizable per-capita reductions in electricity use, it will be difficult to justify imposing the same degree of pain on the West.

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