The US Energy Information Agency said this week that it expects 42 gigawatts of new electricity generating capacity to start commercial operation in 2020. Solar and wind will account for almost 32 GW of the new capacity. Wind will account for the largest share of these additions at 44%, followed by solar at 32%, and natural gas at 22%. The remaining 2% will come from hydroelectric generators and battery storage.
Total US Energy Usage
While that is wonderful news, it does not give a complete picture of the total energy usage in the US. The total amount of energy used in the nation — everything from lighting and heating homes to cooking meals, powering factories, driving cars, flying airplanes, and keeping data centers running — hit 101.2 quadrillion Btu in 2018 according to the EIA. One Btu is equivalent to burning a wooden kitchen match.
And here’s a surprising statistic from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It says as of 2018, about two-thirds of all the energy used in America was wasted, mostly as heat from vehicle exhausts and industrial furnaces. Yet every bit of the energy derived from fossil fuels creates carbon emissions that contribute to global overheating whether it gets put to good use or not.
Just imagine what carbon reductions we would see if all that wasted energy could be eliminated? One of the primary advantages of electric vehicles is they are two to three times more energy efficient than gasoline or diesel powered vehicles.
Pew Research says that as important as deriving electricity from wind and solar is, it still accounts for only about 4% of total US energy use. “As far back as we have data, most of the energy used in the U.S. has come from coal, oil and natural gas. In 2018, those fossil fuels fed about 80% of the nation’s energy demand, down slightly from 84% a decade earlier. Although coal use has declined in recent years, natural gas use has soared, while oil’s share of the nation’s energy tab has fluctuated between 35% and 40%.”
38% of total energy usage went to generating electricity. Here’s another surprising statistic from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Only 34.5% of the energy generated by the electric power industry reaches end users. The rest is lost in the process of generating, transmitting and distributing the power. Once again, as the environmental crisis grows, just think what would happen to global carbon emissions if the majority of the electricity generated each year was put to good use instead of wasted?
Energy Use Per Capita Declines
Pew Research says the amount of energy used by Americans per capita has been decreasing over the past 20 years. In 2000, each US resident used about 349.8 million Btu of energy. By 2017 that had fallen to 300.5 million Btu, the lowest level in five decades. In 2018, though, per capita energy use rose to 309.3 million Btu. The highest use of energy in America per person occurred in 1979 — 359 million Btu.
The decline in per capita use of energy means the US economy has become steadily less energy-intensive since the end of World War II. In 1949, it took 15,175 Btu to generate each dollar of real gross domestic product. By 2018, that number dropped to 5,450 Btu, a 64% decrease.
How High Is Up?
Solar energy is increasing dramatically all across the United States. In 2008, it accounted for 2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. In 2018 it generated 46 times more — 93 billion kilowatt-hours. Yet fossil fuels continue to be the primary source of all energy consumed in the US. In order to tackle climate change effectively, we need to not only generate more electricity from renewables, we need to convert heating, cooling, industry, and transportation to electricity as well. Failure to do so will doom us all. Business as usual will be a death sentence for the Earth and humanity.