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Here’s a nerdy detail that didn’t make it into part 1 or part 2 of our “Whatever happened to peak oil?” series.

When we talk about peak oil, we so often focus on whether oil production is growing or declining, overall. But what’s just as important is how rapidly oil production is changing. (For you nerds out there, we’re talking about the second derivative of oil production.)

When M. King Hubbert first shared his peak oil curve, it featured a quick increase in production followed by a quick decline. In that scenario, reaching peak oil would be like falling off a cliff - which is the source of all the apocalyptic peak oil doom-and-gloom. But what if the decline were slow? Peak oil would be more like when you are coasting down a hill on your bike and the wind feels great in your hair, until you realize that the reason you feel so free is you forgot your helmet, which is dangerous.

It was a bad winter, full of polar vortices and an endless march of blizzards.

And according to data from the Energy Information Administration, Americans spent more on heat this winter than last winter: $14.0 billion more, a 4.4% jump.  


 Here’s what this data tells us:

  • As consumers, we spent more on energy as a whole this winter than last.
  • We spent a little less (3%) on transportation.
  • We spent 10% more on electricity.
  • We spent 16% more on natural gas.
  • We spent about the same fraction of our disposable incomes on energy.

Here’s what this data doesn’t tell us:

  • Did we actually use MORE energy? (The increase in spending could simply reflect an increase in cost.)
  • Did the cost for energy - natural gas, electricity, petroleum - go up since last winter?
  • Do we tend to use more energy when weather is more severe?

Here are some questions this data raises:

  • How much do energy prices change year to year?
  • How has our energy consumption changed in the long term?
  • What factors, if any, influence our energy use and spending the most: weather, energy prices, salaries, cost of other living expenses?

Answering questions with data is a process of triangulation.

For example, we can look at natural gas prices from the EIA and see that they were 63% higher in January 2014 than January 2013:


Perhaps - when it comes to natural gas, at least - we’re spending more because prices are higher. We can confirm this by looking at natural gas consumption data, which shows:

  • total natural gas consumption went up 4% from January 2013 to January 2014,
  • natural gas for electricity generation went up 7%.

Prices grew faster than consumption.

At Inside Energy, we’re digging into these issues and taking a data-driven approach to figuring out how energy intersects with your life. A keen awareness of what data can and can’t do is the most important skill a data journalist needs.

For the Big Bang Data exhibit, Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona interviewed data professionals about the power and limitations of their medium:

This EIA data - and any data - provides insight, but also has limitations. As we provide powerful reporting on what powers you, we won’t just be using data, we’ll be interrogating it.

An average American household uses 903 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per month, enough energy to put your Volkswagen bug into space (if you were incredibly motivated).

Where does that electricity come from?

In the U.S., 37% of our electricity is generated from coal and 30% from natural gas. The rest comes from nuclear and renewables (hydro, wind, solar). These energy sources vary widely from region to region.   In Wyoming, an Inside Energy partner state and the country’s top coal producer, 89% of electricity comes from coal; in Washington state, the country’s top hydroelectric producer, 62% comes from dams.

To generate one kWh of energy (the amount of energy you would need to run something that draws one kilowatt for one hour), you’d need:

  • 1.09 pounds of coal, or
  • 7.86 cubic feet of natural gas

That’s 984.27 pounds of coal or 7,098 cubic feet of natural gas a month for an average American home per month.

What does 984 pounds of coal look like?

984 pounds of coal is roughly 20 cubic feet.  How big is 20 cubic feet? Roughly the size of your standard home refrigerator.


What does 7,000 cubic feet of natural gas look like?

You’d need 7,000 cubic feet of natural gas, or more than enough to fill a freight-train boxcar, to produce enough electricity to meet an average American home’s monthly needs.

That’s also enough natural gas to fill a standard, 875-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment.


An average American household uses 903 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity each month.

That’s enough to power your household appliances and electronics, but what else can you do with 903 kWh?

Here are some unusual ideas:

  • You could use it to run your standard conventional oven on cleaning mode for the entire month.


  • Or, converting kWh into food calories, it would be the equivalent of eating a stick of butter every 41 minutes. For the whole month. (That’s 1,062 sticks of butter, if you’re keeping track.)


  • It’s also the amount of energy it would take to launch a Volkswagen Beetle into orbit* next to the International Space Station.


Next time, we’ll explore where your electricity comes from, and what it looks and feels like.

*Nerd note: It’s roughly the difference in gravitational potential between a VW orbiting at 370 km and a VW on the Earth’s surface — to actually launch it, you’d have to overcome air resistance, and would probably need a bit more than 903 kWh.

When you look at your monthly electricity bill, you probably focus on the number with a dollar sign in front of it. But there’s another value listed: how much energy you actually used.

If you are a perfectly average American living in a perfectly average household, your monthly electricity bill will read 903 kilowatt hours (kWh), which costs $107, per household.

But most of us don’t live in perfectly average households. (The state that comes closest to matching the average monthly electricity usage is Ohio).

Depending on whether a state is hot or cold, urban or rural, an average household can use as little as 531 kWh a month (Maine) or as much as 1,245 kWh (Louisiana). Costs vary state-by-state, too. Hawaiians pay the most for electricity ($203 a month) and New Mexicans pay the least ($75 a month).

As for our Inside Energy focus states:

  • Colorado homes use 706 kWh and spend $81 per month
  • North Dakota homes use 1,091 kWh and spend $99 a month
  • Wyoming homes use 867 kWh and spend $85 a month

How does your electricity bill measure up?

A kilowatt hour isn’t an intuitive unit, so tomorrow we’ll explore what you can actually do with a month’s worth of electricity.

 Data source: Energy Information Administration, 2012


A continuing energy boom in the Rocky Mountains and Northern Great Plains is reshaping the future of what’s powering America, and we’re launching a new reporting project to keep track of that.

Through Inside Energy, we’re teaming up with public radio and television stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota to explore the complex energy issues affecting our lives.

The three states are feeling this new energy economy differently, and it’s changing political realities in different ways.


Per capita, Wyoming is the biggest energy producer in the country.

“By far,” said Wyoming State Treasurer Mark Gordon. “Texas actually produces a little more energy, but they have a lot more people.”

And as you can see in our graph on production levels of the three states, almost 75 percent of Wyoming’s production comes from coal, and state pays for so much with coal taxes:

  • A ton of school funding, including almost all school construction.
  • A massive portion of the state’s general fund.
  • It allows the state to go without an income tax.
It’s a lot of eggs to put in the coal basket, though,especially the last few years.
“There’s a lot of concern, particularly in the short term, that coal is not in favor,” Gordon said.

Demand for coal is trending downward, partly from concerns over and regulations on pollution. It’s also because of the rise of America’s newest energy gold rush—an oil and gas boom in places like the Bakken in North Dakota.


Thomas Wilson joined the Army in 2008 and served in Iraq as a machine gunner. He attended West Point until a back injury sent him home to Wyoming. He’d been working as a Sheriff’s deputy for the last year.

Then, a few weeks ago when he took a job on an oil rig in North Dakota. He started out making $10 an hour more than he did at the Sheriff’s office, working two weeks on, two weeks off.

“It’s hard to compete with a job where you only work half a year,” he said.

A lot of people like Wilson are pouring into North Dakota looking for opportunity. New fracking technologies have transformed the state in the last decade. GDP has more than doubled; unemployment is the lowest in the nation. However, that’s created problems of its own with housing, schools, roads, and infrastructure.

While officials in Wyoming are worrying about the future of coal, North Dakota is trying to figure out how to manage explosive growth.


In Colorado, it’s yet another issue.

The fracking revolution and fracking wealth have come to this state, too.

But here, so much is happening right in the middle of town.

About 400 feet off the southeast corner of the Northridge High School track, there stands a two story wall of what looks like giant brown throw pillows. It’s a sound dampening wall encircling a drilling operation.


Sound-dampening walls have been built around a fracking operation about 400 feet from the Northridge High School track in Greeley, Colorado. (Credit: Dan Boyce)

Fracking operations continue popping up in and around Greeley. Like in many other places around the state, locals are worrying about air and water pollution from the sites or explosions if something were to go wrong.   

“We should be able to have some say in where they put these drilling locations,” said Angela Kirkpatrick, who met with a few other concerned mothers at a proposed Greeley fracking site near their kids’ elementary school. “We obviously don’t want them that close to our children and we don’t want them in our backyards.”

Five communities in Colorado have implemented outright bans on fracking, bans the state is challenging in court. Sara Barwinski is another local mom. She said Greeley isn’t looking to go as far as a ban.

“We’re an oil and gas town and there’s a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on this,” she said.
This tension, between jobs, quality of life and booming industry is exactly what we’ll be exploring here at Inside Energy in the coming weeks and months.

Boom State Energy Facts: How Production and Consumption Stack Up

Welcome back to the third and final post from Inside Energy’s introductory series on basic energy facts on the boom states of Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Last week, we looked at energy production and energy consumption – today, we’ll look at them side-by-side to see how they compare:

  • Colorado, a state where people consume less energy per person than the national average, produces about twice as much energy as it consumes.
  • North Dakota, which ranks near the top in energy consumption per person, produces about three times as much energy as it consumes.
  • Wyoming, the highest per-person energy consumer in the U.S., produces 19 times as much energy as it consumes.

These states don’t exist in a vacuum; their consumption and production values are intertwined with national and global markets. In addition, the energy economy is more nuanced than simply what comes in and what goes out. For example, although Colorado is a top energy producer, it relies on electricity imports to meet its consumption needs. This is because while some of its coal and natural gas is used for in-state energy production, much is shipped out of state.

 At Inside Energy, we’re working hard to wrap our heads around this industry and help you understand how these big-picture energy issues affect you. We’ll be using data and multi-media reporting to explore the intersection of energy and your life.

We’re just getting started, so stay tuned.

See our two earlier posts for data notes and resources.


Welcome to the second post from Inside Energy’s series on the basic energy industry facts in the Middle America Boom states of Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Yesterday, we took a look at energy production. Today, we’re turning to consumption. All three boom states are net energy producers.  (As a nation, we consume more energy than we produce) For all three, industry is the biggest consumer and transportation is the runner-up.

  • North Dakota ranks 41st in terms of state energy consumption:
    • industrial - more than 50 percent of total consumption;
    • residential and commercial uses - more 27 percent.
  • Wyoming ranks 40th in the nation, and consumes slightly more than North Dakota:
    • industry consumes 58 percent; 
    • residential and commercial uses represent about 21 percent.
  • Colorado ranks 26th in the national for energy consumption. But industry and residential/commercial take the lead:  
    • Industry accounts for 29 percent of the state’s consumption;
    • residential and commercial combined make up 43 percent.

When we look at consumption per person, however, the picture is quite different. As a top energy producer with a small population, Wyoming has the highest consumption per capita of any U.S. state - it takes energy to make energy.


Wyoming residents consume 975 million Btu per person per year. That’s about three times the national average, if you’re keeping track. North Dakota isn’t far behind, fourth in the nation for energy consumption per capita and consuming more than two times the national average. Coloradans, on the other hand, consume less energy per person per year than the average American.

If you consider the total consumption per state, it’s easy to see that Wyoming and North Dakota residents aren’t necessarily hiking up their energy consumption by leaving their lights on and their TVs blaring all night: Most of the consumption comes from industry.

Stay tuned for the final piece in this introductory series, where we’ll look at production and consumption side-by-side.


Read More

At Inside Energy, we’re dedicated to making sense of what powers you.

We’re starting with the basics: How much energy do we produce, and how much do we use?

Our three focus states – Colorado, North Dakota, and Wyoming – house two percent of the U.S. population but account for 19 percent of domestic energy production:

  • Colorado was the seventh-largest energy producing state in 2011. Most of it’s production is in the form of natural gas. Renewables represented less than four percent of Colorado’s total energy production in 2011, but that may soon change. New state regulations require 30 percent of electric utility power to be generated from renewable sources by 2020.
  • North Dakota produces less than half the energy Colorado does, and ranks 13th nationwide. But it was the second-largest crude oil producing state in 2013 (behind Texas). Production of crude is sky-rocketing -  in 2013 it was double what it was in 2011 (check out this graph of the boom). Less than one percent of North Dakota’s energy production in 2011 was from renewables.
  • Wyoming is the smallest U.S. state by population, but it dwarfs every state but Texas when it comes to energy production. Wyoming produces four times as much as Colorado and seven times as much as North Dakota. In 2012, Wyoming was the country’s top coal-producing state, yielding more than three times as much as the next closest state, West Virginia. Thanks to Wyoming’s biomass production, it actually had the highest percent of renewables of these three states, at nearly nine percent.

Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming are net energy producers. But as a nation, the U.S. is a net energy consumer: We use more energy that we produce within our borders, so we have to import energy to meet out needs. Stay tuned tomorrow for a look at energy consumption in these three key states.

We’re just getting started. What  questions do you have about energy? Send them to us here, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Data notes:

  • Where did you get this data? This data is from the Energy Information Administration’s State Energy Data System (SEDs). The EIA is a federal agency focused on (you guessed it) disseminating information about energy and tools like this U.S. energy map. We also used population data from the U.S. Census Bureau (ACS 2011 1-year estimates, for the data geeks among you).
  • Why does this graph use data from 2011? Yes, 2011 is a long time ago. The EIA has published full, detailed reports on energy production and consumption, by type and industry, for each state through 2011, and reports on sub-sectors of the energy industry – like coal and natural gas – for more recent years. We didn’t want to compare, say, wind production from 2011 with natural gas production from 2012.  As soon as we can get more current numbers, we’ll update these graphs.
  • What is a Btu? Btu stands for British thermal unit, and it’s a measure of energy. One Btu is roughly equal to the amount of energy it takes to heat one pound of water (about two cups) by one degree Fahrenheit. You’ll often see energy measured in other units – Joules, calories, watt-hours, etc. — and with oil, you’ll see production reported in physical quantities, too (barrels).


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by Boyce