The Aurora Versus the United States -- Which Dissipates More Electric Power?

City Lights at Night, produced with DMSP data at NGDC with funding by NOAA/DOC.

U.S. Electrical Power Consumption

Consider all the lights, refrigerators, air conditioners, computers, TVs and other electrical appliances that consume electricity every day across the United States. According to the Department of Energy's World Energy Balance statistics, the net energy generated to satisfy the needs of consumers by electric utilities in the U.S. during all of1995 was 2,995 billion Kilowatthours. To transform this number into instantaneous power output, divide by the number of hours in a year (8760 hours). This gives an average instantaneous electric power consumption in the U.S. of 340 GW (1 gigawatt=1 billion watts).

Auroral Power Consumption

An intense aurora can dissipate about 4,000 GW. In other words, in 1 second it burns 10 times the amount of electrical energy as is produced in the US durng that same second. This can go on for some 10 hours maximum. So the aurora during the 10 hours dissipates the same amount of energy as is produced by the US electrical power industry during 100 hours of operation. But the aurora cannot maintain this intensity over extended periods of time. Over the course of the year, the aurora on average dissipates only 1-5% of this maximum rate. Taken over the whole year, the aurora uses a bit less power than the US consumes during the same year.

The aurora over the south pole as viewed by DMSP. Imagery produced with DMSP data at NGDC with funding by NOAA/DOC.

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