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 the 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.
Electric utilities’ top priority is making sure there’s exactly enough power in the grid to meet demand. They can adjust the 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.
Energy Efficiency vs Energy Production
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.