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Important reminder: "energy" and "electricity" are not the same thing

Picture taken 31 August 2006 shows high voltage electric lines of the French power company RTE, in Villejust, near Paris.
Picture taken 31 August 2006 shows high voltage electric lines of the French power company RTE, in Villejust, near Paris.
Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Repeat it over and over: "electricity" is not the exact same thing as "energy."

Last week, I wrote about a nifty milestone in Costa Rica — the country had gone 75 days without using any fossil fuels to generate electricity. It was intriguing news, and lots of other outlets also covered it.

Except a number of stories featured headlines that were quite wrong, saying that Costa Rica was now running completely on renewable energy:

That's not quite true, and this subtle error pops up a lot in energy coverage. "Electricity" and "energy" aren't perfectly interchangeable.

Yes, Costa Rica's power plants were all running on renewables (mostly hydro) and delivering clean electricity through transmission lines and wires. But the country still had plenty of cars running on old-fashioned gasoline. There were still airline flights in and out of Costa Rica powered by jet fuel. The country has two large cement plants that were still burning coal in their kilns. It simply wasn't true that, as one outlet put it, Costa Rica had "eschewed fossil fuels completely."

This sounds super nitpicky,* but when we're thinking about how to address climate change, it's worth being clear about these concepts. Electricity is a very important part of the world's energy system, but it's far from the only part. Shifting away from fossil fuels requires a lot more than replacing coal plants with wind and solar farms.

In the United States, for example, burning fossil fuels for electricity only accounts for about 38 percent of US carbon-dioxide emissions. Other major sources include transportation (i.e., cars, trucks, and planes that burn oil), industrial processes (i.e., cement plants or chemical plants that use coal or gas), homes and buildings that use natural gas for heating, and so on:

(Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012.)

(Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012)

So let's say the United States wanted to reduce its CO2 emissions dramatically. Moving to clean electricity — solar, wind, hydropower, nuclear, geothermal, CCS — would be an excellent start. But you'd also have to tackle cars, trucks, cement plants, home heating, and so on if you wanted to run the country entirely on clean energy.

And, if you want to get really persnickety, carbon dioxide emissions only account for about 82 percent of the overall greenhouse gases the US emits. Another 9 percent is methane from landfills, oil and gas wells, coal mines, and cow belches. And 6 percent is nitrous oxide from agriculture and wastewater management. Plus a handful of fluorinated gases.

In other words, carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas, but it's not the only greenhouse gas. Likewise, electricity is an important component of energy, but it's not the only aspect of energy.


* PS, and yes, this is basically open season to point out where our headlines have been incorrect or imprecise. Have at it!

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