Posted February 19, 2016
When Thomas Edison started building electric power plants in the 1880s, he declared he wanted to “light up the world.” That goal seemed breathtakingly ambitious – some even worried electricity was only a passing fad. In retrospect, however, Edison’s vision barely scratched the surface of electricity’s potential. In a 21st century world, our society, our economy – our fundamental way of life – is powered by electricity.
Electricity powers the instant transmission of information around the world. It regulates the transportation systems that tie the global economy together. It allows the growth of great cities in previously inhospitable areas. Even the rise of the American middle class in the 20th century is a product of electricity, as generated power expanded into previously underserved communities, allowing for the introduction of modern convenience and industrial development. This meant jobs and improved efficiency, helping us achieve more for less. Globally, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said access to modern energy is the “golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability.”
A little more locally, electricity brews your morning coffee, keeps your house comfortable, brings you entertainment and helps your fifth grader with her science project. Your refrigerator, your washing machine, your television, the smartphone or computer you’re probably reading this on – all are among the dozens of things in your home that run on electricity.
Today we live in an Electrical Age. Yet our high-tech, electrified lives actually rest on a foundation of primary energy.
The electricity that powers modern America – and the lives of almost everyone living in it – does not flow straight from the ground and into the hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines that make up the national power grid. It must be generated first, from primary energy sources such as natural gas, coal, oil, uranium, sunlight, wind and water. These sources produce electricity in a variety of ways, most commonly by spinning electricity-generating turbines.
Beginning with those first Edison power plants, the United States relied on coal to produce electricity. Today, however, natural gas plays the central role in meeting rising U.S. electricity demands. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas has grown from generating 24 percent of our nation’s electrical power in 2010 to 33 percent today. In its 2015 Annual Energy Outlook, EIA expects it will account for more than 60 percent of the new generation needed from 2025 to 2040.
The two most common methods for using natural gas to generate electricity involve the use of boilers and gas turbines. In a boiler system, the gas is used to heat water to produce steam, which turns turbines to power the generators. The gas turbine system removes the boiler aspect, as air and gas are both injected into a turbine’s combustion chamber where they are ignited, causing the turbine’s blades to spin, driving a generator that converts the energy into electricity.
Natural gas has been used in American homes as a lighting or heating source for the past 150 years. But recent technological innovation has greatly expanded natural gas’s potential. Specifically, two innovative, safe production methods—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – have made American natural gas supplies abundant, low-cost and reliable.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has existed since the late 1940s, but has only started to reach its full potential in the last decade or so. Fracking consists of drilling into shale and other tight-rock formations and injecting a mixture of water and sand at high pressure to create tiny fractures, opening pockets of natural gas trapped between the rock layers.
The use of horizontal drilling was the key to making hydraulic fracturing a truly economical process. Horizontal drilling allows producers to bore holes through shale deposits at a 90-degree angle once the well has reached its full depth. This means fewer wells drilled and allows for access to natural gas deposits located beneath barriers and difficult-to-drill formations that might have blocked access in the past. Horizontal drilling allows more natural gas production with a smaller operational and environmental footprint.
Largely thanks to fracking and horizontal drilling, U.S. natural gas production has increased by more than 40 percent in just the last decade. In fact, today the United States is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and EIA predicts that we may be a net gas exporter by next year.
The natural gas boom is great news for our electricity-dependent lives for several reasons. First, more natural gas means cheaper natural gas. And cheaper natural gas often means cheaper electricity. Second, natural gas makes it easier and faster to grow our capacity to produce more of the electricity we need because natural gas power plants take a relatively short time to build — between 18 to 30 months, compared to several years for a coal or nuclear plant. Finally, natural gas burns more cleanly and efficiently than some other energy sources. Together, these mean lower capital costs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and increased reliability and power quality.
And the benefits are already being seen. EPA data shows that emissions of sulfur dioxide from fuel combustion by electric utilities decreased 79 percent between 1990 and 2013, and emissions of nitrogen oxides decreased 72 percent. Over the same period, with natural gas’ share in power generation increasing significantly, emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel combustion for electric power rose only slightly (12 percent). Meanwhile, from an economic standpoint, in the past year wholesale electricity prices across the nation were down between 27 to 37 percent, a decrease also largely the result of the growth of natural gas in electricity production. This decrease in electricity costs is leaving more money in our pockets. A report by IHS CERA estimates that average household disposable income has increased about $1,200 a year because of America’s shale energy revolution – including savings associated with lower natural gas and electricity costs – with that annual figure expected to grow to $3,500 by 2025.
This is important, because electricity use is rising, with consumption having increased by 100 million megawatt hours in the United States in the past 10 years. And the lion’s share of this increase is because of residential usage, as nearly 50 percent of the growth has gone to the nation’s homes. The rest of the growth has gone to commercial and transportation needs, while the use of electricity by the industrial sector has decreased by about 20 million megawatt hours during the same period of time.
Electricity powers our lives, but natural gas and other raw energy sources power electricity. So the next time you adjust your thermostat, download that song you can’t stop humming, watch your favorite TV show or take your first sip of coffee in the morning, pause to think about what makes it all possible. We live in a dazzling age of technological miracles, both large and small, all made possible by some nondescript slots in our walls.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joins API after spending 16 years as national editorial writer in the Washington Bureau of The Oklahoman newspaper. In all, he has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, including six years as sports editor at The Washington Times. He lives in Occoquan, Virginia, with his wife Pamela. Mark graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and earned a masters in journalism and public affairs at American University. He's currently working on a masters in history at George Mason University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor in the Communication Department.