How is your electricity made?

How is your electricity made? Which source produces the most electricity? How much is made from zero-carbon sources? How much is made from renewable sources?

In 2017, Otherlab was contracted by the Advanced Research Project Agency of the Department of Energy (ARPA-e) to review all available energy data sources and create an ultra-high resolution picture of the U.S. energy economy. The purpose was to identify research priorities and to model scenarios for new energy technologies and policies. This work leveraged many decades of effort by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (PDF) and Lawrence Livermore National Lab analyzing the U.S. energy economy and providing annual snapshots in a Sankey Flow Diagram format. The Otherlab “Super Sankey” tool is available at

Here’s a link to Otherlab’s original post on the project.

The Sankey Flow diagram format can be difficult at first, so I created a simple chart to break down the electricity sources for the United States.

As you can see, we have a long way to go to replace coal and natural gas, the two most troublesome sources for the planet.  Together, coal and gas are responsible for 63% of the country’s electricity.  The next largest source is nuclear at 22%. Nuclear is a carbon-free source of electricity, but it’s not renewable and it produces waste that must be stored for a long time in secure vaults.  Nuclear is often considered a good solution to produce carbon-free electricity (at least while renewable sources come online), but it’s a politically charged technology due to the perceived danger of catastrophic failure of nuclear powerplants.

The largest renewable source of electricity is hydro at 6% and wind is next at 5%.  We hear a lot about solar, but it produces a small fraction of our electricity. And we don’t hear much about geothermal which is about half the size of solar.

These numbers may differ a bit from those calculated from other data sources, but the picture is clear. We’ve got a long way to go to displace coal and natural gas.  But the cost of renewable sources is now less than coal and natural gas.  You’ll soon see more coal plants closing and reduced sales of natural gas power turbine generators.

If we are to do one thing to accelerate the transition to renewable sources of electricity, we should end subsidies paid to coal and natural gas industries and use the freed-up money to create the next-generation technologies that help the grid accept more renewable sources of electricity.

Image credit – Andreas Øverland

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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