Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Electricity That Courses Through Our House

Not long after reading part of a pamphlet that ComEd, our electricity provider, sent with a recent electric bill, I decided to look into that "too cheap to meter" business. According to one source at least, Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission during much of the Eisenhower administration, wasn't actually taking about nuclear power when he said that "our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter." He was just being optimistic about energy production in general.

The pamphlet is ComEd's "Environmental Disclosure Information," and it's fairly interesting reading, despite the utility's bragging about procuring x number of renewable energy certificates. Its best feature is a pie graph, "Sources of Electricity Supplied for the 12 Months Ending December 31, 2010." Since I buy all my electricity from ComEd, that pie graph describes where my electricity comes from, too.

Nuclear power is in red -- the figurative color of the fiery atom, I guess -- and it's 50 percent. Fully half the pie is red. The next largest slice, 38 percent, is black. For coal. Or more precisely, coal-fired power. Black for dirty coal. Natural gas-fired power, colored a less dirty gray, is 9 percent. That leaves 3 percent for everything else: wind power, biomass power, and hydro power. Each is 1 percent and colored green, brown and blue, respectively.

Nukes 'n' coal: that's the reality around here. Illinois happens to be the number-one U.S. state in nuclear power generation, with a summertime capacity of more than 11,000 megawatts. (And where does that hydro power come from? Illinois' dams are fairly small, I'd think.)

The disclosure also tells me that for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours ComEd produces, 894.19 lbs. of carbon dioxide are emitted, on average, along with a little more than a pound of nitrogen oxides; 3.7 lbs. of sulfur dioxides; 0.006 lbs. of "high level nuclear waste"; and 0.0004 cubic feet of "low level nuclear waste." Sic. Hyphens, please. I presume that the high-level stuff is the kind that will ooze lethal radiation for thousands of years.

Looking for a moment at my most recent electric bill -- not too cheap to meter, alas -- I see that it includes figures on our power usage last year: about 9,150 kilowatt-hours, which, according to handy figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is below the national average of 11,040 kilowatt-hours per household per year, though that's a 2008 number. So our annual share of carbon emissions, just from electric usage, is about 8,186 lbs., but since it's a gas, I'm having a little trouble visualizing that. Is it enough to fill up a bouncy castle, for instance?

Also, our share of that high-level nuclear waste in 2010 was 0.0549 lbs., or about 0.87 ounces. A modern (post-1982) penny weighs about 0.09 oz., just for comparison, so that's about 10 pennies' worth of material that'll fry your gonads. Doesn't seem like much, but I wouldn't want to take delivery of it.

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