Just a precursor: This is a hefty read. You can call it a class project or my passion. Either way, if you love learning about science/energy, enjoy this and start a conversation. We need more people talking about this.
The United States was built on the foundation of a fossil fuel economy, and for the past 2.5 centuries, the foundation has remained relatively secure. However, due to the impact of current environmental degradation, rising geopolitical tension (regarding access to limited/finite resources), and rapid, global industrialization (increased energy demand – primarily regarding Asia), it is crucial to assess the United States’ energy consumption, and the potential to re-secure its foundation under the provision of and transition to energy independence, which will certainly require the expansion/utilization of renewable technology as a means of offsetting excessive fossil fuel dependence.
National energy security is widely accepted as being the balance between energy supply, which is ironically attributed to countries/zones consuming the least energy [albeit growing in demand (such as the Middle East, the Caspian Sea, Russia, and Africa)], and energy demand, which is attributed to countries that require the highest volume of imported fossil fuels (such as the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and India). Considering the nature of the asymmetric distribution of energy resources, the United States has traditionally assumed a leading role in managing a vulnerable scenario; a scenario in which the US has capitalized on its ability to maintain the ‘fair’ distribution of fossil fuels worldwide, on the premise of its financial buying power and its resulting ability to steer the international energy market with majority cooperation between interdependent energy markets/nations (Bahgat 1-3). However, current trends suggest the potential for a more volatile international energy market in the decades to come.
Between 2002-2008, the US dollar fell in value nearly 40%. While the dollar indeed strengthened during the international recession that followed, the dollar has resumed its decline as a continued result of the $17 trillion (+) dollar debt that the US owns. Creditors such as Japan and China (the largest investors in US dollars) have expressed doubt regarding the US’ ability to repay its debts in full, which, in parallel, coincide with a growing suspicion that Russia and China are interested in moving away from the US dollar as a means of pricing fossil fuels. Iran, the world’s last independent exporter of significant volume, who has been continuously supported by Russia and China in its efforts, has likewise expressed interest in markets outside of the US dollar (Amadeo 1-2). This particular scenario places the United States in a vulnerable position, in which transition to energy independence is no longer a national ambition, but a financial necessity in order to counteract growing competition for crucial energy markets/sources that the US may potentially lose, an influx in imported energy prices, and quite possibly, the inflation of the US dollar as a result of a shift away from US dominance in the international energy market.
TOTAL ENERGY CONSUMPTION & PRODUCTION BY SECTOR
Therefore, as a means of understanding the United State’s transition toward energy independence, it is crucial to first evaluate the US’ total energy consumption and production.
In 2013, the United States’ total energy consumption was calculated at 97.53 quadrillion British Thermal Units (quad. Btu) [By sector (In quad. Btu): Residential, 21.53; Commercial, 17.93; Industrial, 31.46; Transportation, 27.01], 81.68 quad. Btu of said energy consumption was provided/produced domestically, equating to ~84% of the US’ total energy consumption. Domestic production of natural gas (24.89 quad. Btu) was the primary means by which the US was able to achieve this figure, aided by the production of coal (19.99 quad. Btu), crude oil (15.77 quad. Btu), renewable energy sources (9.3 quad. Btu), nuclear electric power (8.27 quad. Btu), and NGPL (3.47 quad. Btu). In summary, the United States was able to produce ~84% of its energy domestically, led by the production of 64.11 quad. Btu of fossil fuels, yet the US still required significant imports, in the dominant form of petroleum (“Monthly Energy Review”).
The US’ current volume of imported petroleum and other resources cannot go understated. Despite the US producing 15.77 quad. Btu of crude oil, 21.09 quad. Btu of crude oil was imported, along with 2.45 quad. Btu of various other energy. In total, the United States imported ~24.54 quad. Btu of energy in 2013, which equated to ~16% of national consumption. However promising this current figure may appear, the United States is still quite susceptible to changes in dollar value, growing competition for resources, and its domestic production rates, which, despite continuing to increase in quad. Btu, could be significantly offset/decreased by domestic/international market fluctuations (“Monthly Energy Review”). Case in point: as a precursor to the national recession, 2005 forced the United States to a record low domestic production rate of 69%, meaning the United States required 31% of its consumption via energy imports. Regardless of current domestic production rates, the United States is growing more vulnerable in the international energy market, which could drastically deter the nation’s progress toward energy independence (“Domestic production satisfies 84% of total U.S. energy demand in 2013”).
For this reason, I believe that the key to solidifying the United States’ position as an energy independent superpower lies in transitioning toward the expansion/utilization of renewable energy resources as a means of offsetting our current dependence on fossil fuels, which will provide the basis for true independence, regardless of domestic/international energy market fluctuations.
RENEWABLE ENERGY CONSUMPTION & PRODUCTION BY SOURCE
Since 2000 alone, the United States has increased its domestic production of renewable resources by ~52.33%, coinciding with a ~310% increase in renewable capability since 1950. After a slight contraction in 2012, a 2013 record high of 9,298 trillion Btu of renewable energy was produced [By Source (in trillion Btu): Bio-fuels, 2,001; total Biomass, 4,614; Total Renewable Energy, 9,298], while total renewable consumption in the United States reached 9,291 trillion Btu [By Source (in trillion Btu): Hydro-electric Power, 2,561; Geo-thermal, 221; Solar/PV, 307; Wind, 1,595; Total Biomass (Including Wood, Waste, and Bio-fuels), 4,607] (“Monthly Energy Review”). Based on (relative) rapidly decreasing cost and the increased accessibility of renewable technology, it is without doubt that the United States will push toward the increased utilization and expansion of (in order of growth prospective) utility-scale PV, concentrated solar power, on/offshore wind power, geothermal systems, and finally, bio-power, as a means of offsetting dependence on fossil fuels (Lopez, Roberts, Heimiller, Blaire, and Porro). On the residential scale, the United States has already begun legislation backing the growth of what are called micro-grids, which will certainly be backed by renewable technology, and may well drive the first sector (the residential sector) toward relative energy independence. However, that is another dense conversation in and of its own.
RENEWABLE POTENTIAL BY SOURCE
Based on estimates excluding market/economic constraints, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has provided “specific estimates of energy generation potential, based on renewable resource availability and quality, technical system performance, topographic limitations, environmental, and land-use constraints” so as to demonstrate the energy potential behind specific renewable technologies in their current state of operation (Lopez, Roberts, Heimiller, Blaire, and Porro). These estimates demonstrate, as stated, the capability of renewable technology by source, given particular constraints, and are as follows:
As stated, NREL’s projections exclude financial constraints, which are of great consideration when projecting the potential behind a resource, yet, I believe it is generally acceptable to claim that, based on such results, and the US’ current renewable growth patterns presented in the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) energy outlook, the United States will begin pushing toward the expansion of biotechnology (which is sufficiently available in the eastern United States), solar PV, wind, and geothermal systems, until maximum potentials have been met.
MARKET & ECONOMICS
Arguably, the most important factor in accelerating the United States toward energy independence is market viability and legislative backing. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided incentives toward investments in “fuel efficiency, renewable sources, clean-coal technology, and nuclear plants,” however, this legislation is only a stepping-stone in what will be a continual effort to provide significant incentives toward expanding the US’ renewable potential (Bahgat 33-36). As stated in NREL’s assessment, key assumptions such as “policy implementation… regulatory limits, investor response, regional competition with other energy sources…topographic constraints… system performance… technology costs,” and the expected, continual rise in fossil fuel costs will all be determinate factors in the successful implementation and expansion of renewable potential in the United States (Lopez, Roberts, Heimiller, Blaire, and Porro).
However complex, financially pressured, and time-consuming the transition toward energy independence will be, it a crucial step in solidifying the United States’ energy security in the midst of a revolution that is taking place globally. The potential of renewable resources has yet to be eve remotely tapped, but will certainly provide the basis for the United States’ independence and resulting, continued dominance in the domestic/international market.
Amadeo, Kimberly. “Dollar Decline or Dollar Collapse?.” News & Issues: US Economy. 2013: 1-2. Web. 5 Jun. 2014. .
Bahgat, Gawdat. Energy Security : An Interdisciplinary Approach. 1st ed. Wiley, 2011. 1-3, 33-36. eBook. .
Lopez, Anthony, Billy Roberts, Donna Heimiller, Nate Blaire, and Gian Porro. U.S. Department of Energy. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis. Golden: NREL, 2013. Web. .
U.S. Department of Energy. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Domestic production satisfies 84% of total U.S. energy demand in 2013. 2014. Web. .
U.S. Department of Energy. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Monthly Energy Review. 2014. Web. .