Over the last 20 years, energy consumption in the United States increased with population growth. The rise in these categories were accompanied by an increase in domestic production, from 68 quads (quadrillion Btu) in 1993 to 79 quads in 2012 according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Increased energy consumption is not unexpected — more people need more energy — but just looking at those numbers hides the detail. Energy has a much more dynamic story line in recent U.S. history.
Although 33 states and the Gulf of Mexico produce more energy than 20 years ago, the source of that energy has changed. Today’s U.S. residents still consume energy but they aren’t tapping into the same kinds as they were two decades ago.
Twenty years ago, fossil fuels (gas, coal, petroleum) dominated the energy landscape. Today, they still contribute around 87 percent of total needs in the last decade or so, but renewable energy and biofuels now make more of an impact. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) summarizes annual energy statistics. Comparing energy consumption levels in 1995 with those in 2015 shows that while fossil fuels remained constant at around 79–80 quads, renewables such as wind power, solar, biomass and geothermal rose from 7 to almost 9.5 quads. Among the renewables, wind power now exceeds hydroelectric generating capacity.
Although renewables such as wind and solar supplied less than 10 percent to the national power grid in 2015 (rising from less than 3 percent in 10 years), surging interest in this technology fuels around two-thirds of new electric power plant development in the country. The location of these new plants has surprised some analysts, since they are in states not traditionally invested in renewable energy. For example, in terms of solar farms, California leads the way but North Carolina comes in at a close second; Texas and Kansas have both invested significantly in wind energy.
There has also been a change within fossil-fuel supplies, with domestic fracking for oil and gas now contributing more to national energy supplies. In 2000, less than 2 percent of U.S. oil production came from the 23,000 wells; in 2015, 300,000 wells produced 4.3 million barrels per day: more than half of oil production in the country.
It’s a similar picture for gas. From 2000, gas fracking has increased production from 26,000 wells producing 3.6 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) to a daily output in 2015 of 53 Bcf/d from 300,000 wells. Two-thirds of the total natural gas output in the U.S. now comes from fracking.
As an end user, you won’t feel any difference when switching on a kettle or turning the car ignition key. However, to the energy industry, shifting the focus onto renewable energy sources and fracking has had huge impacts.
- Extraction by fracking is faster and easier than deep-water drilling, so oil costs less to produce. The U.S. is now a top-three oil producer; however, the global oversupply means that the price of oil has dropped, thus reducing production profits.
- Renewable energy sources are more attractive to develop since overall costs are lower, they are emission-free and more resilient to energy market price fluctuations compared to fossil fuels.
- Technological advances mean that renewable energy is a more feasible source. For example, wind energy production is more effective due to higher efficiency turbines, reducing costs by two-thirds in the last six years.
- Renewable energy plants can exist in less populous areas, bringing new types of jobs and manufacturing to rural areas.
Looking to the future, EIA modeling predicts decreased coal consumption over the next 20 years with rising reliance on renewables for U.S. energy needs. As a result, as interest and confidence grows, companies invest more in research and development in renewable energy, and not just here on Earth; Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation is working in collaboration with the California Institute of Technology to develop solar-power technology for space missions. Results from this project could answer energy challenges back on the ground.
Furthermore, with technological advances, renewable energy is sufficiently reliable to attract U.S. Navy investment. Marine Corps Air Station Miramar uses renewable energy, capturing waste to power the base. After executing an agreement with the city of San Diego, power converters now capture methane emissions previously flared off from a landfill to generate electricity. More recently, the Department of the Navy invested heavily in solar power, generating capacity to power up to 14 facilities. Not only do both investments reduce costs, but they also decrease reliance on the national power grid. Perhaps this is the biggest impact overall since it means less reliance on external markets and a dwindling resource and increased security.
As long as the world population grows, so will the need to find cheap and efficient alternatives to non-renewable energy.