Electricity and productivity: a basic truth that is being ignored

“The relationship between electricity and productivity is so important that it should be considered in developing federal… energy and economic policies.” Those words are from 1986, in a book called Electricity in economic growth: a report published by the National Academies Press. In the context of that quote, here is a question. Would you expect productivity to grow, stagnate, or decline if the electricity system is based on the least efficient and most expensive forms of electricity?

Next question: what is the most efficient form of electricity? Answer: the kind that uses the least resources. That could be distilled into a simple metric: resources consumed per kilowatt-hour generated.

Resources include land and fuel. Land is measured in square miles, square kilometers, acres, and hectares—it depends on whether you use imperial (British or US) or metric units.

And fuel: most electricity is generated using coal, natural gas, oil, uranium/plutonium, and running water. Some people would add wind to the list, but that’s mostly because wind gets a lot of headlines. Don’t confuse headlines with reality. Wind is a bit player, even on grids where governments are bending over backwards to bring more of it in. Solar also gets a lot of headlines, but it is simply so minuscule that we can ignore it in this analysis.

So in terms of resources consumed to make electricity, what is the most efficient form of electricity?

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Maury Markowitz
8 years ago

“So in terms of resources consumed to make electricity, what is the most efficient form of electricity?”

Are you asking, or preparing to tell us?

I’m not sure I agree with the setup. I believe that measuring power output in terms of land, for instance, is not likely to reveal much, and would be open to manipulation. How much land does a flow-turbine in the Bay of Fundy use? Zero. So that means it’s infinitely efficient? For nuclear, do we include or exclude the safety zone around the plant? Are low-head run-of-river power plants like the one in Fenlon Falls “more efficient” than the RB plant in Quebec because it doesn’t have a dam? In spite of the fact that it generates less power per unit of water?

And the same for fuel. By that measure, wind and solar would be the most efficient, right? They have no “fuel”, so it’s infinite. And what is the measure of fuel in a hydro system? Litres of water? But it’s free, so how does that compare to, say, litres of oil? Does it, at all? In a nuclear system, do we measure litres of air or water used for cooling? This is clearly important, as the French find out every summer.

Perhaps something might be made from a lifetime energy-in, energy-out measure. We’re used to talking about well-to-wheel efficiency in the automotive world, perhaps something similar would be useful in the power market.

Steve Aplin
8 years ago

Maury, of course I’m preparing to tell you. But in the mean time, your point about fuel:

By the measure of fuel used against power output, wind and solar are clearly NOT the most efficient. The fact they are “free” means doodly squat. It’s why nobody other than drug smugglers is running a sail powered shipping company today.

Maury Markowitz
8 years ago

“By the measure of fuel used against power output, wind and solar are clearly NOT the most efficient”

You’re going to have to show me your math on that one.

“The fact they are “free” means doodle squat”

So it has something to do with the *price* of the fuel now?

Confusing.