A recent article published by the EIA culminates its research on American energy consumption, providing a history since America’s independence and projects into 2040. Under the assumption that Obama’s Clean Power Action plan goes into effect in 2022, the agency highlights three major trends set to influence energy prices and reduce emissions: Coal is replaced with cleaner natural gas; emissions increases from petroleum consumption balances out with efficiency gains and transportation changes; and the emergence of a solar and wind sector. In general, we are set to burn a higher proportion of cleaner fuels, and fossil fuels will make up 4% less of the total energy mix by 2040.
Coal’s environmental footprint is ghastly. After 300 years of mining, cleaner coals are continuing to become uneconomical. In 2012 not only did coal contribute roughly a quarter of United States carbon dioxide emissions, but through its mining, produced around 10% of human made methane, which is around 23% more harmful than carbon dioxide. Thanks to government regulations and a cooperative industry, coal demand is rapidly decreasing, having declined 29% off its peak in 2007. Texas, America’s most intensive user of coal, has reduced its coal consumption by 15 million short tonnes, while California has managed to eliminate 96% of its production. Natural gas, which is cheaper than coal (thanks to nearly a doubling of US natural gas reserves since 2000) produces half the carbon dioxide emissions per unit energy, and a fraction of other harmful pollutants. The use of natural gas is set to offset and meet future demand growth into 2040, and is eventually set to rest at par with petroleum.
Petroleum, and the gasolines and fuels that are derived from it, is incredibly hard to replace. A 10 gallon tank of gas can store the energy of 7 fully charged Tesla’s. Finding a suitable replacement for petroleum has proven such a difficult task that the Department of Energy is offering a 1-Billion-dollar prize to an inventor who can build a battery as productive as gasoline. Petroleum accounts for the largest share of United States GHG emissions at 32.7%. But technologies aiding in the efficiency of petroleum use are rapidly being adopted. Everything from emission standards to urban development are being designed for improving the utility of a gallon of petrol. As such, the EIA projects that petroleum will play a key role into our future as demand growth and efficiency technologies balance out.
Renewable energies are forecasted for monumental gains, overtaking nuclear and coal powered generation by 2040. Solar and wind power form most of these gains as renewables, less hydro, take 10% of energy consumption.
Overall, the phase out of coal for natural gas will drastically reduce emissions by 12.5%. Given that the US reserve of natural gas has doubled since the turn of the millennium, prices for electricity should remain within reach for the average consumer. Efficiency gains through technology and urban planning will likely offset demand growth for petroleum products. Renewables such as wind and solar continue to be practical solutions for covering residual demand requirements and are only getting cheaper. In an era where media frequently finds itself in a state of panic and fear, we needn’t forget our leaders are taking small logical steps to combat a long term and overarching problem.