FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!
The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:
This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?
The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?
In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.
In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).
This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.
The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”
The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.
This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.
In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.
How does your state generate electricity?
One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others. The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.
The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.
The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses. Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.
China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.
In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.
We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.
Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.
This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.
Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.
Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.
The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.
As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.
Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.
“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”
Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.
Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)
In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
What will this map look like in the next 30 years?
A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”
Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?
Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.