Sometimes energy makes headlines, sometimes it doesn’t. But it almost always has important implications for the global economy, the environment, and our day-to-day lives.
Here are 10 energy statistics from 2014 that capture some of the most noteworthy trends of the year, and that will shape the energy world in the years to come.
Coal is America’s largest source of electricity, but its dominance is waning. There were five new coal power plants built in 2012, two in 2013, and just one in 2014 — Spiritwood Station in North Dakota, which produces a modest 62 megawatts of capacity at peak.
The trend is largely market-driven: as natural gas has become cheap and abundant, coal has become less viable. New standards requiring power plants to produce fewer carbon emissions are also driving costs higher, and accelerating coal’s decline.
So is the rise of inexpensive renewables. Solar became cost-competitive for utilities this year, and the price of wind power hit an all-time low. As a result, energy companies plugged an extra 3,281 megawatts of wind, hydro, biomass, and solar power into the grid between January and September — a full 53x what Spiritwood Station generates. You can bet those figures will be even higher in 2015.
Many aspects of Apple’s iPhone 6 are indeed, as the company has stated, “bigger than bigger” — from screen size to sales numbers. But at least one thing about the phone is spectacularly small: its energy consumption.
In September, a study by Opower revealed that charging the iPhone 6 costs just $0.47 a year. Fueling a 6 Plus model will run you only a nickel more than that. In a whole-home context, charging these devices (and comparable phones) represents around 0.04% of the average U.S. home’s electric bill.
And on net, the rise of smartphones — with 1.3 billion shipped this year alone — is actually likely to decrease the world’s overall energy consumption. How so? Many consumers are using their smartphones to consume media they would otherwise watch on bigger, energy-hogging devices, like computers and televisions.
On land and at sea, 2014 was a scorcher.
This year, the combined global land/ocean average surface temperature has exceeded the 20th-century average by 1.22°F (0.68°C). Meteorologists expect that 2014 will surpass 2010 as the warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880.
Countries around the globe are feeling the heat. China’s January was the second-hottest of all time, Norwegians flocked to the beach during the warmest spring in history, and California endured its hottest (and one of its driest) years ever. Likewise, measurements of global sea-surface temperatures have never been higher.
By the end of 2014, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record will have occurred in the 21st century, coinciding with a sustained increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. The earth has now undergone 38 consecutive years in which the annual average global temperature is anomalously high.
For most of 2014, it seemed all but assured that President Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan — the first-ever carbon standard for U.S. power plants — would be the biggest climate policy news of the year. But that notion went out the window in November, when the United States and China surprised the world with a dramatic joint commitment to cutting carbon pollution.
The bilateral agreement stipulates that America will emit 26 to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. In return, China will cap its soaring greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2030. To meet that goal, President Xi Jinping said China will plug as much as 1 billion kilowatts of zero-carbon electric generation capacity into the grid — enough solar, wind, and nuclear capacity to rival the entire U.S. fleet of power plants.
Perhaps most significant of all: by committing the world’s two largest carbon polluters to action, the U.S.-China partnership sets the stage for a global climate pact at the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2015.
At the 2014 World Cup, Brazil’s power grid was far more reliable than its soccer team.
Keeping the country’s lights, TVs, and tournament infrastructure running around the clock was no small feat. Brazil depends on hydropower for more than 75 percent of its electricity supply, but the region’s most serious drought in 40 years caused its primary hydroelectric reservoirs to dip to 30 percent capacity, leaving a critical gap in national power supply.
To avoid power disruptions during the Cup, the Brazilian government preemptively injected more than $5 billion into the country’s electric sector. The cash helped utilities replace lost hydroelectric generation with backup energy sources like imported natural gas.
Drought conditions hit hard in America, too. Hydropower made up just 10 percent of California’s electricity mix this year, down from 20 percent. As in Brazil, natural gas is picking up the slack, saddling the state with additional economic and environmental costs.
For most of the 20th century, economic growth and energy demand moved in lockstep: to make more stuff, we burned more fossil fuels. Then the oil crisis hit, and saving energy became a strategic imperative. Western nations like the United States started implementing efficiency standards to get more juice out of our cars and appliances. And it worked: since 1973, America’s economy has grown 287 percent, while energy consumption has increased less than 50 percent.
Denmark won global recognition earlier this year by going a step further. According to the Danish Energy Agency, the nation’s GDP grew 38.3 percent between 1990 and 2012. But energy consumption actually went down 4.1 percent during the same period.
Denmark owes its success in part to a law requiring utilities to curb energy demand by 2 to 3 percent annually. Now other countries in the European Union have started implementing their own regulations. And so has America: 24 states have efficiency standards on the books, and new carbon standards for power plants are pushing utilities nationwide to adopt stronger efficiency measures.
Electric utilities’ top priority is making sure there’s exactly enough power in the grid to meet demand. They can adjust supply by taking power plants on- or offline, and they can influence demand with efficiency programs that help homes and businesses moderate their energy use.
This year, new research exposed a dramatic price differential between those two options. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported that it costs utilities just 2.1 cents in total to reduce energy demand by 1 kilowatt hour — which is less than half the cost of producing the same amount of electricity at a power plant. Other studies published this year reached similar conclusions.
As utilities across the U.S. retire their older, more polluting power plants, many will adopt energy efficiency programs as the cheapest — and cleanest — option available. That’s great news for consumers, who will see those cost savings in their energy bills. In states as disparate as Michigan and Georgia, utilities have been delivering $4 in benefits for every $1 they spend on efficiency programs.
Credit: Tesla Motors.
The electric vehicle market is about to get turbocharged.
Just two months after Tesla CEO Elon Musk released his company’s patents to catalyze the growth of the broader electric car industry, the company announced in September that it would construct not a megafactory, but a “gigafactory” in Nevada to pump out lithium-ion car batteries at scale. Tesla projects that it will produce 50 gigawatt-hours worth of battery packs annually by 2020 — enough to power 500,000 new Tesla vehicles every year.
The manufacturing plant is expected to cost $5 billion, span 5 to 10 million square feet (174 football fields at the upper end), and employ 6,500 people. Tesla intends to make the gigafactory a net-zero energy facility that taps into local renewable power sources like solar and geothermal.
Today, only around 1 in every 140 new cars sold in the US is fully electric, but the ambition and scale of the gigafactory could leave that ratio in the dust. If it does, the impact on utilities and the power grid will be significant. Opower’s July 2014 analysis of more than a million households revealed that homes with electric cars use 4x more power than average during certain hours of the day.
A new solar project is installed in America every 3.2 minutes. Just as remarkable: almost every single one is misaligned with the needs of the electric grid.
Today’s solar roofscape is dominated by south-facing panels, as confirmed by Opower’s recent analysis of 110,000 solar homes in California. That makes sense, since south-facing panels capture the most sunlight and produce the most energy over the course of a year.
This year, however, saw an increasing number of energy thinkers pivoting toward the western sky. That’s because west-facing systems, unlike south-facing systems, are best at generating power in the late afternoon — when the grid can benefit the most from the extra juice. Such is the context for California’s new $500 incentive for west-facing solar rooftops, or the proposal by Arizona’s largest electric utility to award a monthly $30 payment to customers hosting west-facing systems.
Only around 1 in 10 solar rooftops point west today, but a sufficiently large westward shift could make solar energy an essential asset in helping utilities meet peak electric demand. A region with 25,000 solar rooftops, if strategically oriented, could send as much late-afternoon power back to the grid as a 50-megawatt natural gas peaker plant.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to three Japanese scientists who built the first blue light-emitting diode (LED). Their technology paved the way for the white LED bulbs you can buy at the store today, which are 19x more efficient than conventional incandescent light bulbs and can last 50-100x longer.
There are two big reasons that white LEDs are a transformative innovation. First, a full fifth of the world’s electricity use goes toward lighting; more efficient bulbs represent an opportunity to dramatically cut global energy consumption. Second, there are 1.5 billion people who aren’t connected to the power grid. LEDs use so little energy that you can run them off cheap, local solar panels — which means there’s finally technology in place to light every home on Earth.
In the Nobel Prize announcement, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote that “incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.” That's a bright idea — and like a lot of the trends we've covered, one that illuminates what's possible for 2015.
Graphics: John B. Lee
Authors' note: The analysis and commentary presented above solely reflect the views of the authors and do not reflect the views of Opower’s utility partners.