How carbon-heavy are your personal assistants?

Item A1 on the left sidebar shows the current concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the global atmosphere, as measured at the Mauna Loa CO2 observatory in Hawaii. Right now it is 399.16 parts per million. What does that mean, in terms of the numbers of tons of CO2 emitted by fossil fuel burning engines, such as some of the Ontario electricity generators shown in Tables A1 and A2 on the left? According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Oak Ridge National Lab in the U.S., an increase of one part per million CO2 in the air means that 7.81 billion tons of the stuff have been added to the atmosphere. The United States in 2012 emitted just over 5 billion tons of CO2 from the use of fossil fuels (see p. ES5 of the 2014 National Inventory Report the U.S. submitted to the United Nations). At that rate, the U.S. alone jacks up the global concentration of CO2 by 1 ppm every 19 months. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that a 100 ppm change in the natural carbon cycle takes at least 5,000 years. It took us humans 120 years to achieve an increase that size. At our current rate of fossil fuel use, we will increase the concentration to 500 ppm by around the year 2060.

Just how big is the U.S. CO2 contribution compared with that of other countries? Human use of fossil fuels worldwide, according to Skeptical Science, puts around 29 billion tons into the atmosphere every year. So America, one country out of 196, with four percent of the world’s population, contributes 17 percent of mankind’s annual carbon dioxide. America’s annual per capita CO2 emissions, at 16.9 tons, are the third highest in the world. Only Australia (17.4 tons) and Luxembourg (20.1 tons) are higher.

I will depart from the usual feigned shock at that statement: that America, one country out of 196 on this planet and representing only 4 percent of the planet’s human population, contributes 17 percent of mankind’s annual CO2. America is the world’s biggest single destination for immigrants looking for a better life. Its gargantuan CO2 emissions point to the reason why that is. Immigrants looking for a better life are not of course seeking to increase their personal per capita CO2 emissions. They are seeking a life that does not require them, under their own steam, to do by far most of the work that is required for them to feed, shelter, and fulfill themselves as humans. So their desire is not to increase CO2 emissions; rather, they are seeking to increase their own per capita energy use. America’s total primary energy supply (TPES) was in 2012, according to the IEA, 2.191 billion tons of oil equivalent (TOE). Its population is roughly 313 million, which means America’s per capita energy supply amounts to about 81,417 kilowatt-hours per year. (America’s primary energy supply in 2010, expressed in metric tons of oil equivalent, was 2.216 billion TOE. Each TOE contains 41.868 x 109 joules; and since a watt is 1 joule per second, to convert the product to kWh divide by 3600 seconds. Divide that number by 313 million, the population of America.)

Now, each American, on his or her own steam, outputs on average about 100 watts of power. Over a year this amounts to 876 kilowatt-hours of energy (8,760 hours per year times 100 watts divided by 1,000 to convert to kWh). That figure is about the same for every human, American or not. What separates the average human from the average American is the sheer size of that extra block of energy the average American has at her disposal. That block of energy is 81,417 kWh per year. Which is to say, the average American goes through her life with 92 personal assistants who fetch and heat or cool her water, light her lights, run her computer so she can surf the Internet, and propel her in motorized vehicles at relatively high speeds, and in climate-controlled comfort, to all manner of destinations, some of which are actually interesting. Imagine what life would be like without those 92 personal assistants. From the American’s point of view, decidedly un-American.

The American per capita personal assistant count of 92 means that America’s 313 million actual human citizens are assisted through their daily lives by an army of 28.8 billion personal assistants. Which is to say, America’s energy, if supplied by humans, would require a human population that is more than four times the current population of the entire world.

An immigrant arriving from, say, Nigeria, has come from a country of roughly 162.5 million souls that used, in 2011, the equivalent of 118.3 million TOE (see p. 81). This gives the Nigerian an annual personal energy supply of 8,467 kWh, less than 11 percent of that of the average American. On the ground, this means the average Nigerian goes about his business with a retinue of about nine personal assistants. That means that if he wants hot water, he can’t have very much, or he has to forego, for the time being at least, artificial illumination or the Internet or driving. The American, with her 92 personal assistants, can have all the hot water she wants, whenever she wants it, plus all the illumination and computing power and motive power for her car—all at once if she so desires. This is why many Nigerians, when they can afford to emigrate, do so—to countries like America.

The average American’s retinue of 92 personal assistants is not at all immoral or wasteful. In fact, it represents an enormous step forward in social progress. Until “artificial”, i.e., non human, energy became so cheap and abundant, guess how most affluent people acquired the additional energy required to help them get through their day. Yes, animals provided a lot of it; hence the term horsepower (745 watts). But, to our everlasting shame and disgrace as a species, much of it came from our fellow humans: people over whom we had economic or social or physical power. Those hypothetical people whom I refer to as “personal assistants” were, back in those days, anything but hypothetical. They were actual human beings and were known not as personal assistants but by a harsher name: slaves. Back in pre-1860s America, any citizen who wanted 92 personal assistants’ worth of power acquired (actually purchased, if he could afford it) 92 slaves. The awful institution of slavery ended, after eons of high minded talk, only with the advent of the modern energy economy. As I have argued elsewhere, the electric grid turned human slavery from a reality into only an ugly memory. Today’s American can very easily—and, if she so chooses, profligately—use 92 personal assistants’ worth of power with a clear conscience.

Well, almost clear. As I pointed out off the top, America adds, every 19 months or so, 1 part per million to the global atmospheric concentration of CO2. This occurs by way of the 5 billion tons of CO2 that a big proportion of each of the 28.8 billion personal assistants emit in order to get their (average) 100 watts of power.

Let’s look just at electric power generation, which at over 2 billion tons of CO2 in 2012 was by far America’s biggest single sector source of the gas (remember that America emits over 5 billion tons of CO2 each year.) Electrical power is an excellent measure, since all advanced jurisdictions have it in abundance. I would argue that that is what Nigerians are seeking when they emigrate. One kWh of electrical energy does the same work in, say, Germany as it does in France or America or Nigeria or Ontario. But it comes with a starkly different CO2 content in, say, Germany than it does in France or Ontario or America.

So how does America’s electricity compare on a unit-by-unit basis with other areas? Well, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), generators across the U.S. in 2012 generated 4.047 trillion kilowatt-hours. The U.S. National Inventory for 2014 put 2012’s power generation CO2 at 2.02 billion metric tons (again, see p. ES5). Converting 2.02 billion (2.02 x 109) tons to 2.02 quadrillion (2.02 x 1015) grams, and dividing by 4.047 trillion (4.047 x 1012) kilowatt-hours, we get a grid electricity CIPK of 499.53 grams. (I know this covers up the very significant regional, or grid-level, difference within America. But bear with me.)

So 4.047 trillion kWh, at 499.53 grams per kWh. This means that each of the 4.6 million personal assistants assigned to provide electrical power came with an annual CO2 “pricetag” of 144 tons (assume that electrical power made using heat engines generally comes with a thermodynamic efficiency of 33 percent). Collectively, their 2.02 billion annual tons of CO2 contribute one-quarter of 1 ppm to the CO2 concentration in the global atmosphere.

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”What is the Grid CIPK, and how is it calculated?”]CIPK stands for CO2 Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour. The Grid CIPK is a measure of the carbon content of a kilowatt hour of grid electricity.

The CIPK of a given grid is simply the amount of CO2 emitted by the generating plants within the jurisdiction responsible for that grid, divided by the total amount of electricity fed into that grid over a given hour. Of course, in order to calculate CIPK you have to know both of these figures.

So here is how to calculate Ontario’s grid CIPK. You need to refer to Table 1, in the upper left-hand sidebar on this page. Table 1 gives the current Ontario grid generation mix (it draws from data published at, and the CO2 emissions associated with the emitting fuel types.

  1. Go to the Total row in Table 1.
  2. Take the figure from the CO2, tons column.
  3. While still in the Total row, now take the figure in the MWh column.
  4. Divide the CO2, tons figure by the MWh figure.
  5. Multiply that result by 1,000. This converts tons-per-megawatt-hour into grams per kilowatt-hour.

Try it!


Now have a look at Ontario’s CIPK; you can find last hour’s figure in Table A1. At six a.m. today (July 17 2014) it was 32.44 grams. America’s 2012 CIPK was 15 times that.

Why is Ontario’s electrical power so clean? Well, Table A1 tells you why at a glance. By far most of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear plants; nuclear plants emit zero CO2.

In 2012, Ontario power plants dumped around 13 million tons of CO2 into the air. Ontario had in 2012 a population of around 13.5 million, and it made roughly 150 billion kWh of electricity. This gives Ontario an annual per capita electrical energy supply of 33,670 kWh—or the equivalent of 518,887 personal assistants (again, assume that electrical power generally comes with a thermodynamic efficiency of 33 percent). Which in turn gives each electricity personal assistant an annual CO2 pricetag of roughly 25 tons. Remember than each American electricity PA has a CO2 pricetag of 144 tons.

If the American electric power CIPK were anything like that of Ontario, America’s 13.9 million electricity-assigned PAs would collectively dump less than one-fifth of the roughly 2 billion tons of CO2 they currently do. America’s contribution to the already alarmingly high CO2 concentration in the global atmosphere would be far less than it is today.

The amazing thing is, this is totally doable. For America to aim for a grid electricity CIPK similar to that of Ontario would require a recommitment to nuclear energy.

America invented nuclear energy. It built more than a hundred nuclear plants back in the 1970s and 1980s. It put a man on the moon less than a decade after pledging publicly to do so.

America is a beacon to the world, precisely because it can offer immigrants a lifestyle that could include 92 personal assistants’ worth of energy. Because all this energy is coming by way of machines, it is totally humane.

But America must make those 92 PAs less carbon-heavy. It can do so, easily, and within less than two decades. It just needs to embark on a second great nuclear build-out.

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9 years ago

My experience with anti-nukes is that they are fanatic and utterly immune to facts.  Not even proof that nuclear power is the only workable method for halting the rise of atmospheric CO2 budges them in the slightest.

9 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

Prime example: a recent thread over on Brave New Climate. Goal post shifting, genetic fallacies, ad hominems, anything but reasoned debate and referenced assertions, let alone a willingness to consider other perspectives.

9 years ago
Reply to  ActindeAge

Yes, I’m in that thread.

9 years ago

“Not even proof that nuclear power is the only workable method”

Now you’ve caught my attention. Please, provide said “proof”.

“Goal post shifting”

Yeah, because the pro-nuke crown *never* does that, right? Let’s see…

Gen II reactors would fix all the problems
Gas cooled reactors would fix all the problems
Fast breeders would fix all the problems
Pebble-bed reactors would fix all the problems
Gen III reactors would fix all the problems
TWT’s would fix all the problems
***place this marker line at the current date as it changes***
Small modular reactors will fix all the problems
LFTRs will definitely, absolutely, for sure, fix all the problems

The problem is, and always has been, CAPEX, an issue everyone on this blog avoids like the plague (myself excluded of course, but that’s just because of my awesome hair).

Lazard’s LCoE puts *quoted prices* of modern nukes between $5.35 and $8.20/W. However, every single plant currently under construction is over time and over budget. If you add those into the pot, the price is between $9 and $10/W.

In comparison, the range on modern wind turbines is between $1.5 and $2/W, and I know that is already at the high end. Unlike nuke plants which have been hit by rising material costs (concrete has gone up 4 or 5 times in the last decade) wind turbines go in so fast that inflation is not an issue, nor is cost-of-money.

LCoE is essentially CAPEX * CF. CF on a modern plant is about 90%. So that means that the effective price for a nuke is, say, $8.5 / .9 = 9.45. For a wind turbine in ontario, where the fleet averages 30% CF, it’s $1.75 / .3 = 5.83

And that is precisely why no one is building nukes. Yes, even the Chinese, the holy grail country of the industry, has basically stopped their expansion plans. Meanwhile, wind is the fastest growing power source, ever.

You can complain all you want about the greens this and eco-whoever that, but until you get the CAPEX of a nuke back under $4/w, no one is going to build them. Period.

Here, argue with numbers: