Energy 102: Energy in the U.S. of A.: Definitions and Infrastructure

 

Do you know how energy works in the U.S. of A.? A lot of people at all levels of society don’t. That is a problem. How can we deal with the energy side of climate change if we don’t understand the problem, or even the right terms to use? We need facts, not opinions. Facts like:

*Energy is the biggest part of our economy, barring our medical and healthcare system. 

*Our economy and daily lives depend on the energy infrastructure we call the grid.

*The grid is a tenuous network that, at times, is unable to supply us with enough power.

*Energy and power are not interchangeable terms. Before we go any farther, we have to get down the terms.

“Energy” is the thing itself. “Power” is the rate at which energy moves. Or, to put it another way, power is energy plus time, as in a car has a lot of power. 

When you see “kW”, that is a kilowatt which is equal to one thousand watts. “kWh” signifies a kilowatt hour. If you leave on a one hundred watt lightbulb for ten hours, you have used one thousand watt hours, or one kWh.

Usually used to express electricity, kWs are units of power. So are British thermal units or BTUs, but BTUs refer to heat. A BTU is the energy it takes to heat one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. One BTU/hr is a British thermal unit per hour. If you have ten BTU/hr, that would be the quantity of power that would heat ten pounds of water one degree, or one pound of water ten degrees, over the course of one hour. Though BTUs are commonly used for heat and are derived from heat, they can be used to express any energy, including electricity. 

Just as “liters” express units of water, kWs and BTUs express units of energy. The rate at which you pour the water into a pipe is a watt. And the size of the pipe is the voltage. Sort of. 

According to the EIA.gov website,⁠1 there are five primary energy consuming sectors: Electric power (38.1%); Transportation (28.8%); Industrial (22.4%);  Residential (6.2%); and Commercial (4.5%). These five sectors depend on the electrical infrastructure that has been built, in ad hoc fashion, over decades: the national grid.

The grid began small. As each town, then city, or isolated human, moved in, and then out, and farther out into the suburbs and across the country, the wires that connect us followed. We now have a system that connects us in such a way that, at times, when you flick a switch in my town of Jaffrey, the response might take place in Quebec or Rochester. The electricity that turns on your light has traveled hundreds of miles. That is not efficient. 

Even locally, the grid has wires going every which way, not least, way off into the hinterlands of country living. Though the utilities have to provide customers with the means to get power, it is more expensive for the utilities to run those wires and run the electricity through those wires, than the amount they can charge customers for the power. Not good economics. 

More definitions: Power generators produce electricity, then sell it on the wholesale market. Electricity providers purchase the rights to that electricity at wholesale, and then turn around and sell it to their customers, who can decide on fixed rate, variable rates, 100% green options. Electric utilities deal with the physical movement of electricity from the generators to the customers: they maintain the wires and poles, thereby enabling the energy that has been harnessed by the power generators, and bought by providers, to go through wires maintained by the utilities, to your house, a process that is noted by the electric utilities because they need to collect the delivery charges, which are duly regulated by the state public utility commission (PUC).  The theory is that by separating providers and utilities, the customer is able to shop for competitive rates and still receive reliable service.

Eversource Energy is an energy provider. And a utility. Hm.

It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. And it’s a complicated system with a lot of entities involved, not least, the customers.

Please feel free to comment and correct! 

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1 United States Energy Information Administration