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America’s Energy Landscape


By Jeff Frank, Director of Sales and Marketing – Energy Management Solutions, LLC

EMS spends a lot of its time looking at the details of our clients’ energy and utility usage, often down to the minute or the quarter hour, so when we came across the 2010 annual snapshot of ALL of America’s energy needs, including the energy we waste, we believed it to be worth sharing.

Leave it to the folks at Lawrence Livermore Labs to put the entire American energy landscape on one page, in a picture no less!  They’ve been doing it for years and it is the clearest portrait of America’s vast landscape of energy sources, uses, and efficiencies we’ve seen.

This flow chart shows the amount of energy (in quads) that is produced by different energy sources and consumed by different sectors. Image credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the US Department of Energy.:

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory




America used 98 Quads of energy last year.  So, what’s a quad?  A quad is a unit of energy equal to 1015 (a short-scale quadrillionBTU,[1] or 1.055 × 1018 joules (1.055 exajoules or EJ) in SI units. (Wikipedia.org)  Converting to common electrical units a quad is equal to 293 Billion kWh.

293.06 Billion kWh per quad * 98 quads per year  = 28.72 Trillion kWh of energy

The amount of energy in one quad is equivalent to that produced by the burning of 36 million tons of coal.  To help put this in perspective we started running some numbers for you and what we calculated forced the engineers in us to check and recheck the numbers.  It’s a staggering amount of energy.

To get to “apples to apples” let’s assume for a minute America gets all of it energy from coal (actually last year  we got 21.25% of our energy from coal, 25.17% from natural gas, and 36.73% from petroleum).  Just how much coal would it take to run America for a year?

To help paint that picture, imagine a coal train – a really big coal train – a mile long.  It will have about a hundred rail cars and carry about 10,000 tons of coal.

Now do the math – 36 million tons of coal to the quad, 10,000 tons per mile of coal train, and before you know it you’ve got one shockingly long train, actually a train 3,600 miles long, long enough to stretch from Los Angeles, California to Jacksonville, Florida turning the corner and continuing unbroken to New York City…   America burns up, captures or converts, or generates the energy equivalent of 98 of these “quad trains” each year….

Trains in America run on average between 20-25 miles per hour.  If you were unlucky enough to get caught at a rail crossing while one of the “quad” trains rolled by, you’d be parked there for over a week.  What is discouraging is that the coal transported during approximately the first 4 days will simply produce rejected heat, not energy put to service.  To watch all 98 of America’s quad trains roll by would take a full two years.

At the micro scale perhaps it makes some sense… leave a 100 watt incandescent light bulb on for one year and to power it you’d need to burn 966 pounds, or almost half a ton of coal…

Closer examination of the flow chart highlights how far we can and have to go to make more efficient use of our energy sources. Fully 2/3rds (67.8%) of the energy we put into generating electricity doesn’t power a thing – it is lost due to the inefficiencies of burning fuels, converting, capturing and transporting electricity.  71% of America’s oil and petroleum use powers our transportation sector, and of that three quarters (75%) of the potential energy in those petroleum products we burn for transportation are lost.

All in all, of the 98 quads of energy we used in 2010 57.2% of it was “lost” and did no useful work. Put another way – the first 60 out of America’s 98 “Quad” energy trains will be burned to produce “rejected energy”.