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Williams: Energy Independence Within Our Grasp

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When it comes to energy, the U.S. is in stronger position than previously reported. According to a recent Energy Information Administration report, the net amount of primary energy imported in 2012, the latest year figures are available, was less than 15%.

Keep in mind; this is about net imports. According to EIA, the nation imported approximately 27 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy. However, the nation exported slightly more than 11 quadrillion Btus, for a net import of approximately 16 quadrillion Btus. Since the total amount of energy used in 2012 was 106 quadrillion Btus, the net imports amount to slightly less than 15%.

Natural gas was the largest contributor towards energy independence. Approximately 24 quadrillion Btus were produced domestically, or 23% of the nation's energy.

Coal was second. Approximately 21 quadrillion Btus were produced in 2012. This amounted to 19.5% of the nation's energy.

Crude was third. Approximately 14 quadrillion Btus were produced for 13% of the nation's energy.

Renewable energy was fourth. EIA defines renewable energy as conventional hydroelectric power, biomass, geothermal, solar, photovoltaic, and wind. Renewables produced nine quadrillion Btus, which amounted to 8.3%.

Nuclear power was fifth. Approximately eight quadrillion Btus were produced. This amounted to 7.6% of the nation's energy.

The largest energy consumer was the industrial sector swallowing approximately 29% of all primary energy produced or imported.

Transportation, residential and commercial sectors were the other large consumers. Transportation consumed approximately 25% of the nation's primary energy. Residential consumed approximately 19%. Commercial consumed approximately 16%.

Because primary energy is used to create secondary energy, these figures include electric power. However, the breakdown of EIA's sources and uses of electric power is equally interesting.

In 2012, the power industry consumed 40% of the nation's primary fuels. Of that 40%, they wasted approximately 26 quadrillion Btus. Nearly 25 quadrillion Btus were lost converting primary energy into electric power. More than one quadrillion Btus were lost in moving secondary energy from power plants to consumers.

When it comes to using the nation's primary fuels, EIA data suggests the power industry is incredibly inefficient. On average, in 2012 it lost almost 70%. In fact, the amount of energy wasted in the power sector exceeds the amount of oil imported from foreign sources.

To be fair, it is technologically difficult for the power industry to raise efficiencies. Any power plant using steam to produce electricity has difficulties achieving any degree of efficiency. That includes most coal-fired plant. It also includes most nuclear power plants.

These numbers might explain why federal and state policymakers focus on energy efficiency in the power and transportation sectors. If they wasted less, the nation would need to import less.

The Fallacy of Large Numbers

If the power industry could operate at higher levels of efficiency, the nation would not necessarily import less energy. It turns out the power industry is essentially energy independent. All of the fuel used in the industry is domestically produced. Virtually no oil is used to produce the nation's electricity.

The biggest opportunity is in the transportation sector. If transportation mimicked the power industry and used more domestically produced energy, energy independence could be achieved.

Two opportunities become obvious. One is to use more natural gas as a transportation fuel. The other is to use more electricity.

This may be one reason for the sustained interest in Clean Energy Fuels (CLNE - Get Report) , Westport Innovations' (WPRT - Get Report) engines and Honda's (HMC - Get Report) 2014 Civic Natural Gas. Of course, operating economics is another factor.

Eating into natural gas vehicle sales are electric cars and plug-in hybrids. All electric car manufacturers like Tesla (TSLA - Get Report)Nissan capture the imagination of policymakers and engineers. The more these cares are used, the less energy needs to be imported.

It does not have to be all-electric. Hybrids have a huge impact on fuel numbers. Companies like General Motors  (GM - Get Report), Ford (F) and Toyota  (TM) offer hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

Highly efficient engines can outperform some hybrids. From an energy independence point of view, a high performance engine can use less primary fuel than a low performing hybrid. Now, if only someone would offer a hybrid that uses compressed natural gas.

A few years ago, the idea of energy independence seemed impractical. Today, we are only 15% away. Complete independence is within our grasp. 

At the time of publication, the author had no positions in any of the securities mentioned. Glenn Williams has more than 30 years of experience in power and fuels, including design, engineering, construction, startup and operations of large-scale power projects. He has had direct involvement with coal plants, natural gas facilities, and approximately half of the nation's nuclear power facilities and designs energy strategies for regulated and unregulated energy organizations. He received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern University and a master's degree in technology management from the University of Maryland.

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