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A data junkie's look back at the West in 2013

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Jonathan Thompson | Dec 26, 2013 05:00 AM

’Tis the season of cheer and light and of gorging ourselves and then getting in life-threatening sledding accidents. And, of course, it’s also the season of looking back on the year that has been and futilely trying to learn from all the stupid mistakes we made. Yes, it’s Year-in-Review time. My colleague, Sarah Gilman, wrapped up the important stuff of 2013 in a lovely, context-filled package elsewhere in this cyber-space. If that’s the bike-under-the-tree gift, think of these as numeric stocking stuffers from a data junky. Numbers before the new year is a kind of a tradition around here, like drinking too much at the family dinner and passing out face first in the pumpkin pie.

ECONOMY

6,087: Housing starts in Las Vegas, Nev., this year as of October.

3,931: Housing starts in Las Vegas in 2011.

30,605: Housing starts in Las Vegas in 2005.

HousingStartsWest
Home-building across the West is coming back, but remains sluggish in comparison to past booms. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Yes, believe it or not, construction crews are back on the job in Southern Nevada, which was probably the area hit hardest by the housing bust that started to take a serious toll in 2008, and houses are again sprouting in the desert. Of course, the construction is moving along at a more reasonable pace these days, mostly filling in all those lots that were abandoned after the bust, i.e. zombie subdivisions. It’s an indicator of what’s happening nationwide: A slow comeback. Westwide, single-family home construction is up about 25 percent from last year, but still pales in comparison to the boom times.

12 million: Estimated dollars lost in potential spending at the Grand Canyon and nearby communities as a result of the October federal government shutdown.

14: The number of points by which Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s favorability rating among his state’s party members dropped between June and October 2013. Lee was one of the ideological leaders of the shutdown effort.

40 million: Dollar amount of reported monthly oil-revenue received by the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

7.6: Unemployment percentage rate in the West, Nov. 2013, making us the most unemployed region in the nation.

ENERGY

17,131: Megawatt hours of solar energy put into the California power grid on Dec. 15, 2013.

8,500: Megawatt hours put in on June 21, 2012.

4.90: Monthly dollar amount added to the electric bills of Arizona Public Service customers who install a 7 kilowat rooftop solar array, as approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission this fall.

50-100: Dollar amount APS had asked the state's utility regulator to add to rooftop solar users' bills.

2013 was a banner year for solar on a utility scale, particularly in California. And rooftop solar survived various political attacks mostly unscathed, and installations were on fire. Wind’s doing well, too, thanks in part to Congress keeping the production tax credit alive for another year. During the first half of 2013, 79,922 megawatt hours of wind power were pumped into the North American grids. That’s 25 percent more than in 2012, and more than six times what was being produced back in 2006.

EnergyMix
The U.S. electricity generation mix is still dominated by coal, even after natural gas threatened to take the number one spot in 2012. Source: Energy Information Administration.

Still, all those renewables aren’t killing coal, yet.

808,151,000: Coal-powered megawatt hours generated in the U.S. during the first half of 2013.

781,750,000: Coal-powered megawatt hours generated during the same period in 2012.

In 2012, natural gas power matched coal in the energy mix, for a short time. But coal reclaimed its dominance, and has held its own against gas, which this year contributed about 25 percent less power to the grid than coal. That’s sure to be temporary. Dozens of coal plants are slated for retirement, and new EPA regulations essentially rule out the construction of new ones without carbon capture technology.

During the last few years, the coal industry looked overseas for salvation, and for a while, exports were on a major upswing. The trend seems to have stopped this year.

61,261,943: Tons of coal exported from the U.S. during the first half of 2013.

66,176,136: Tons of coal exported during the same period in 2012.

And though we always thought it would be China buying all of our coal, it turns out that our biggest customers are over in Europe. U.S. coal producers shipped 7.6 million tons of coal to the Netherlands during the first half of this year, and 6.5 million tons to China.

85 million: Dollar amount the Navajo Nation will pay to buy the Navajo Mine, the supplier of coal to nearby Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico. The purchase will keep the power plant running, and a proposed, $300 million rail spur would allow access to overseas markets. If there are any overseas markets for coal by then.

The big news in petroleum is North Dakota's oil boom. But there's been a quieter boom that's yielded even more supply in an unexpected way: efficiency. That’s right, by driving less and using more efficient cars, Americans used less gasoline during the first nine months of this year:

2.40 billion: Barrels of gasoline consumed in the U.S. during the first nine months of 2013.

2.53 billion: Barrels consumed during the same period in 2007.

5.9 billion
: The difference, in gallons, between the amount of consumed during the first nine months of 2007 and the amount consumed in during the same period in 2013. We're still gluttons, but it's progress.

CLIMATE

The West’s weather was wacky this year, as it often is. The numbers tell the story.

22.7 million: Acre-feet of water in Lake Powell on Dec. 1, 1983

LakePowellPoold
Lake Powell's pool elevation functions as a sort of barometer of the hydrological health of the Upper Colorado River Basin. It's looking a little ill this year. Source: US Bureau of Reclamation.

10.6 million: Acre-feet of water in Lake Powell on Dec. 1, 2013

2.96: Inches of precipitation that had fallen in Las Vegas this year, as of Dec. 19.

9.08: Inches of rain that fell in Boulder, Colo., over a 24-hour period during the September 2013 flooding.

115: Days that the mercury topped 100 degrees in Phoenix in 2013.

23: Degrees below zero of the low temperature in Alamosa, Colo., on Dec. 10, 2013. The low was below zero on 18 of the first 19 days of the month.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

Dan Schroeder
Dan Schroeder Subscriber
Dec 26, 2013 09:15 AM
For what geographical area are the coal-fired megawatt-hours?
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Dec 26, 2013 09:41 AM
Dan: That's for the entire United States. I see why you're asking. I had inadvertently left off the "thousands" of megawatt-hours, making the numbers look quite low. I've fixed the error so that it is now accurate. It's 808+ millions of megawatt-hours. Sorry for the error, and thanks for asking. Jonathan.
Dan Schroeder
Dan Schroeder Subscriber
Dec 26, 2013 12:14 PM
Actually I wasn't doing any mental arithmetic to see if the numbers made sense. I guessed that they were for the whole U.S. from the context, but I still think it's a little ambiguous.

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