Inefficiencies of our Electric Power System

June 1, 2023
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Blog post written by Fisher Mallon, Montgomery County 2023 Summer Climate Intern

Energy is lost before you get the chance to use it. Where does it go?

If you’re like most people in the United States, the electricity that you use to heat your house, cook your food, charge your phone, and so on, comes from the commercial grid and is powered by fossil fuels. Unfortunately for our planet, and our pocketbooks, only a fraction of the energy produced by burning fossil fuels actually arrives at your outlets. And you may be wasting that energy too. Meanwhile, you’re still paying for all the fuel that was combusted by your utilities, and the emissions from that combustion are entering the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. So where has that extra energy gone?

Let’s start at the source:

  • A thermodynamics problem: To create energy from fossil fuels, coal, oil, or natural gas is burned. The heat generated is used to boil water and make steam, which is used to turn a turbine that produces electricity. However, this process is inherently inefficient because a significant amount of the energy created from the combustion is lost as thermal energy. The result: average efficiency for a coal-fired power plant is 33%. That means that two thirds of the coal’s energy is lost before any electricity is produced. The efficiencies of oil and gas power plants are only slightly better, averaging 37% and 40% respectively.
  • Energy Leakage: Next, the electricity from the power plant is moved to your home through transformers and miles of power cables. However, not all the energy will make it to your outlets. Energy is lost as heat or noise in the transmission lines and from metering inaccuracies or power theft (criminals stealing electricity from power lines). In total, the US Energy Information Administration estimates the cost of electricity loss during the transmission process to be $20 billion
  • Energy Vampires: A final source of waste remains hidden in plain sight: vampire appliances. These devices suck energy out of your walls even when they are turned “off.” The most common culprits include devices with standby lights or clocks, “smart devices”, video game consoles, DVD players, digital TV converters, and cable/satellite boxes. It is estimated that energy vampires consume between 20-40% of a building’s monthly electricity usage, costing US ratepayers over $19 billion annually, or about $165 per household.

This does not mean that we must accept electricity waste and the accompanying excess carbon emissions. There is a lot we can do to make the process more efficient.


  • Individual action: Tackling energy vampires is the natural first step toward minimizing personal electricity waste. Controlling the energy vamps can be accomplished by: 1) Unplugging devices that you use irregularly, 2) using power strips and turning them off when unneeded, 3) putting idle electronics into “sleep” mode, and 4) saving money and electricity by choosing energy efficient replacements for broken or old products.
  • Renewables: Renewables don’t waste energy because they don’t use fuel. That’s not to say that renewables are 100% efficient– a solar panel, for instance, can convert 18-25% of incident solar energy into electricity– but no excess carbon is being emitted as a byproduct and the supply of solar energy is not diminished. Switching to renewables is not always feasible for an individual (explore your options here), but you can support legislation aimed at promoting the transition away from fossil fuels.
  • Microgrids: Microgrids reduce inefficiencies related to sprawling transmission networks and electricity overproduction. Their smaller scale allows them to be customized to meet specific energy needs, and Montgomery County’s microgrids are evidence that they are increasingly powered by renewable energy.

As with any environmental issue, collaboration between individuals, communities, and governments is needed to address these inefficiencies.

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