What’s Powering You?

React Network
3 min readJan 19, 2023

In the U.S., most of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the product of burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) for energy use. Economic growth and weather patterns that affect heating and cooling needs are the main factors that drive the amount of energy consumed.

The EIA estimates that the burning of fossil fuels accounts for ~75% of US greenhouse gas emissions and >90% of human-caused US CO2 emissions.

In 2021, US CO2 emissions associated with burning fossil fuels totaled ~4.9 gigatons. For those of us that still haven’t memorized the number of ounces in a cup, a gigaton can be hard to comprehend. A gigaton is 1 billion metric tons. 4.9 gigatons is roughly equal to the weight of 13,453 empire state buildings! It takes a lot of gas to add up to 13,453 empire state buildings!

So, how does the USA put 13,453 empire state buildings worth of CO2 into the air? It turns out, we can measure this pretty well:

  • Transportation accounts for ~37% of emissions (4,967 empire state buildings)
  • Electricity generation accounts for ~32% of emissions (4,296 empire state buildings)
  • Industrial uses account for ~20% of emissions (2,631 empire state buildings)
  • Commercial & residential uses account for ~12% of emissions (1,559 empire state buildings)

The plan to decarbonize transportation is pretty easy to envision. Every major car manufacturer is transitioning to showrooms filled with electric vehicles in place of the standard internal combustion engine. Elon Musk made EVs cool and they’re going mainstream. Even the F-150 and Hummer have gone electric, with both vehicles generating multi-year waitlists as soon as reservations were made available.

Electricity generation and resulting CO2 emissions are a little harder to wrap your head around. Grid operators whom you count on to keep your lights on employ a number of generation assets, including fossil fuel-burning coal and natural gas plants, nuclear power plants, hydro, solar, and wind to deliver exactly as much electricity as all of the grid’s users demand at a given time. The mix of these assets matters and the trade-offs are real. Fossil fuel plants, particularly natural gas plants, can be called on for quick response power generation; however, these assets generate CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels. Renewable assets generate carbon-free electricity; however, their production does not necessarily always correlate to demand. The “energy mix” of generation sources changes significantly throughout the day.

Carbon intensity of the grid throughout the U.S. on 1/18/2023 at 2:00pm CT.

Decarbonizing the power grid requires a bit of “achievable magic”. Until we’re able to ensure that renewables can effectively match demand, we will continue to rely on traditional fossil fuels. We must find a way to move electrons through space and time to get to net zero.

Curious about the energy mix that’s powering you? Check it out here:

https://app.electricitymaps.com/map

You might be charging your Tesla with a coal-heavy power grid!

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React Network

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