A breakdown by source of energy produced and consumed in the United States since 2000.

With all the talk out there about renewable energy sources you’d think we are well on our way to a clean energy future where dirty coal plants are a thing of the past and all vehicles are powered by biofuels or cleanly produced electricity. Unfortunately, despite all of this hype, renewable energy sources still make up a small portion of our total energy use. However data recently released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that renewable energy now provides more power in this country than nuclear energy. So while we are not quite at the point where there is a solar panel on every home, we are making progress.

Based on data released by the EIA in June renewable energy sources (wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and geothermal) accounted for 11.7% of the energy domestically produced in the first quarter of 2011. During that same period fossil fuels and nuclear accounted for 77.2% and 11.1% respectively. Perhaps more importantly, when evaluating energy consumed during the first quarter of 2011 renewables also surpassed nuclear, accounting for 8.5% of total energy consumed domestically, with fossil fuels and nuclear at 83.2% and 8.2% respectively.

Even though renewables accounted for only 11.7% of what we have produced and 8.5% of what we have used so far this year, it is a step in the right direction. In the first quarter of 2010 renewable energy accounted for 10.7% production and 7.5% consumption. In terms of real numbers production is also up; through the first quarter of 2010 the U.S. had produced 1.95 quadrillion BTUs (a quadrillion is a million billion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 or 1015) of energy from renewable sources, compared to 2.245 quadrillion BTUs in 2011, a 15% increase in renewable energy production from last year.

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Total energy use is likely to continue to increase every year as developing countries demand more power and countries like the U.S. constantly add more high tech gizmos that need energy. But let’s assume we start to be more efficient with our energy, and thus our domestic demand stays flat. In 2010 we used a little over 98 quadrillion BTUs domestically, and 8.049 quadrillion BTUs were from renewable energy. Let’s also assume that 15% increase in renewables holds up for all of 2011, and continues to increase every year at that rate. In 10 years we would be up to 38% of energy used from renewable sources, and we would be at 100% by 2028.

Now there are a lot of assumptions required to get to that 100% renewable by 2028. For one thing it’s hard to imagine our energy use will remain the same over that period; however since 2000 our total consumption has actually decreased by about 0.008%. The recent economic recession contributed to the lack of energy demand, but if we begin to implement energy efficiency measures, we can certainly keep increases in energy demand at manageable levels.

In addition to the likelihood of increased demand the intermittency of renewable sources such as wind and solar could prevent a 100% renewable energy goal from being reached. Another hurdle is that these numbers reflect total energy use, which includes transportation and heating fuels. It’s hard to imagine we could completely eliminate petroleum powered vehicles or natural gas heaters in homes in just 17 years.

So while there are hurdles, there is a lot to be optimistic about. Over the course of those 17 years we may develop more efficient and cost effective energy storage options, making wind and solar more attractive and electric vehicles more cost competitive. Engineering of biofuel from algae could displace petroleum. On top of all of this, there is the nuclear factor as well. Despite the situation in Japan nuclear power has been reliable, and has seen advances since its inception, even if the U.S. has yet to implement many of those technologies in new or existing facilities. If we were to also expand our nuclear energy portfolio along with renewables we could phase out coal, oil, and natural gas even quicker.

We may only be slightly above 10% of renewable energy production today, but the growth in the sector shows a good deal of promise to achieve a clean energy economy in our lifetimes.  


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