Published on October 28th, 2018 | by Jake Richardson0
American Energy Over The Last 45 Years
October 28th, 2018 by Jake Richardson
In 1973, Arab OPEC members initiated an oil embargo against the US for its support of Israel. At the time, the US was overly reliant upon foreign oil and the embargo damaged the American economy. President Nixon made a television appearance to describe various energy savings measures to get through the oil crisis.
Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the Sun Day Campaign, answered some questions about American energy production and consumption issues for CleanTechnica.
1. Is the national increase in fossil fuel consumption over the decades largely due to the impact of population growth and over-reliance on personal transportation instead of mass transit?
When thinking about the growth in fossil fuel consumption since 1973, it’s important to segregate the three major fossil fuels – i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas – because their growth patterns have been driven by different factors. Coal and natural gas play very little role in transportation — oil is overwhelmingly the dominant fossil fuel consumed by cars, trucks, planes, ships, trains, etc. Forty-five years ago, oil was also a significant fuel in electrical generation, but has largely been replaced by not only coal and gas but also nuclear power and renewables. The amount of oil used in the transportation sector today is roughly 50% greater than that used in 1973 — and the US population has grown by roughly the same percentage in that timeframe. So, yes, population growth and the corresponding increase in vehicle miles driven can account for much of the growth in oil use. That did not need to be the case, though. Higher priority given to mass transit, biking, walkable cities, etc. could have curbed demand for oil. A much larger reduction could have been realized if passenger cars were required to be more fuel-efficient. Twenty-five years ago, it was technologically possible to achieve automobile efficiency targets (e.g., 40 mpg) that are still not mandatory today. Additional savings could also have been realized if stricter fuel efficiency standards had been mandated for other forms of transportation as well.
2. Why is overall energy consumption increasing despite various conservation measures?
Total energy use is growing primarily due to growing population and a growing economy. The US population in 1973 was roughly 212 million; it is now about 328 million — an increase of over 50%. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the real GDP of the US in 1973 was $5.687 trillion; by 2017, it had more than tripled to $18.051 trillion. The important development is that energy use did not grow in lockstep with economic growth over the past 45 years — prior to 1973, the general rule was that for each 1% growth in the economy, there would be a corresponding rate of growth in energy use. The fact that energy use has increased by 50% or less while the economy has tripled is largely attributable to improvements in energy efficiency across all sectors as well as to greater emphasis on reducing energy waste. However, before anyone is tempted to pat himself on the back, it is worth noting that the potential exists for far greater energy savings. If one looks at each energy use sector (e.g., buildings, appliances, transportation, industrial), it is not far-fetched to conclude that it is technically and economically feasible to curb current energy use by at least 50% without risking harm to the economy, jobs, or lifestyles.
3. Do you expect the increasing number of EVs on the roads will make a dent in fossil fuel consumption in the next 10 years?
While this is arguably an under-reported story, EV penetration has very possibly reached the critical mass point and will be doing much more than “making a dent” in the coming decade. In the past few years, EV sales had been approaching 1% of total car sales but very recently, new data suggests their share may have jumped to as high as 3%. In part, that reflects falling prices and drivers’ greater familiarity and comfort with EVs. The driving range – between electric charges – of newer models is now comparable or approaching that of gasoline-powered vehicles working on a single tank of fuel. And increasingly, the EV infrastructure is being created throughout the U.S. My best guess is that EV sales over the next 10-15 years will exceed even the most optimistic current projections and therefore will make more than a “dent” in oil use in the transportation sector.
4. Can you estimate roughly how much the current administration is setting back reasonable energy policy?
The Trump Administration is clearly doing great damage to the nation’s energy policy as exemplified by its efforts to roll back efficiency standards for appliances and vehicles, to reverse efforts to control methane, CO2, and other greenhouse gas emissions, to increase exploration and extraction of fossil fuels – including offshore drilling, fracking of natural gas, and development on public lands, and to prop up uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants. Trying to place an economic figure on it is probably premature because many of the Administration’s efforts are being fought and/or tied up in the courts, resisted by individual states and a growing number of large corporations, and — in some cases — even by the Republican-controlled Congress (e.g., the Department of Energy’s budget for renewables and efficiency). Nonetheless, opponents of individual proposals are suggesting that the costs could entail thousands of additional deaths plus extensive human health impacts and billions of dollars in economic damage. One need only look at the human and property toll of recent climate change-driven hurricanes to get a sense of the potential enormity of the ultimate cost. It will be catastrophic.
5. Do you expect industry will continue to install and use more renewable energy?
Yes, and I predict the trend will accelerate in the near term for two reasons: first, it is very good for any industry’s public image to be perceived as being environmentally responsible and “green.” Second — and more importantly — it is good economics. As the cost of renewables, especially wind and solar, continue to decline and become ever-more competitive and cheaper than fossil fuels and nuclear power, it just makes sense to invest in and buy from those sources, as well as energy efficiency. The attractiveness of renewables will only grow as storage technologies make inroads and also drop in cost and open up new possibilities for establishing microgrids and possibly breaking away from dependence on traditional utilities. And beyond industry, state, county, and municipal governments will also shift increasingly to renewables. That trend began with the 29 states that have renewable energy mandates (i.e., RPS’s) which increasingly are being strengthened and they are now being followed by counties and cities with nearly 100 now planning to transfer to 100% renewables in the coming years.
6. How long do you think it might be before energy from renewables triples again?
The answer is more political than technological or economic. Renewable energy sources today are cheaper than nuclear power and arguably less costly than fossil fuels, especially coal — although this varies in different parts of the country. Therefore, some renewable energy sources have the potential to increase rapidly in the near future. Environmental and supply constraints will likely limit the growth of hydropower and biomass; they have grown only modestly over the past 45 years and I do not foresee anything akin to a doubling, much less a tripling, of the energy from these sources in the near-term or mid-term. Geothermal has the potential for moderate growth, especially if Enhanced Geothermal System technologies come into wide-spread use. If that should happen, a tripling over the next decade or longer is theoretically possible — but geothermal is starting from a small base so even a tripling would probably not make it a major energy player in the mid-term. Wind and solar, though, do have the potential for fast growth, especially if coupled with storage. In recent years, wind has experienced annual growth rates of close to 10% while that of solar has often exceeded 25%. Combined, they now account for 10% of U.S. electrical generation and almost 4% of total energy consumption. If recent growth rates continue or increase, a doubling or tripling within the next decade is certainly possible; in fact, such growth could be an understatement.
7. Richard Nixon appears to be a very unlikely candidate for a leader who would be concerned about energy consumption. Why has energy independence been around as an idea for a very long time, but has not been taken more seriously?
As a person who served on several federal energy policy advisory groups during the Nixon and Ford administrations, I suspect their concern about energy consumption was driven by political necessity more than by any deep environmental values or real understanding of energy technology. The instinct of the Nixon and Ford administrations was to respond to the 1973 Arab oil embargo by promoting coal and nuclear as alternatives to oil – especially in power production. Subsequent administrations — especially those of Presidents Reagan, George H. Bush, George W. Bush, and now Trump — saw the path to energy independence as being one of “drill, baby, drill” or “drain America first.” But reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power is limited by a broad mix of economic and environmental problems. Meanwhile, the Republican presidents and their administrations generally refused to invest in energy efficiency and renewables or to support policies that would advance them — usually for unsound ideological reasons. To the extent that progress has been made in making sustainable energy a viable option for achieving energy independence, the credit has to be given to the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations as well as corporate, non-profit, and local & state leaders. Thus, the pattern has often been two steps forward, one or more steps backward with only very limited net progress.
Image Credit: David Falconer/public domain