Reducing our use of fossil fuels is an urgent necessity. With ever more dire predictions for global warming over the coming century, reducing our consumption of fossil fuels is a necessity for the preservation of our society. Global warming will put increasing stress on our fresh water supplies, and food production, while threatening ever more severe storms. On the supply side, oil industry experts warn us that we are at or near the peak potential for world wide oil production and are headed for a period of irreversible decline in production. Similarly, estimates of U.S. coal reserves have seen a significant downward revision in recent years, while the energy content of the coal we mine declines as high quality anthracite, bituminous, and sub-bituminous coal reserves become depleted and we become increasingly reliant on low quality lignite reserves.
These two factors highlight how unsustainable our economy has become. We face major changes in the way we produce and consume energy—that much is unavoidable. Renewable energy will be an important part of a conversion to a more sustainable economy. But, perhaps even more important will be conservation.
The Energy Information Agency provides a bi-yearly review of the amount of energy consumed in the U.S. According to the most recent report, the U.S. consumed just under 100 quadrillion Btu’s of energy in 2008. Of this, 6.8% came from renewable sources or biofuels. Nuclear power accounted for 8.2%, and fossil fuels accounted for the remaining 85%.
The EIA projects that renewable energy sources will be the fastest growing energy sector, but that it will not grow enough to replace any existing fossil fuel sources. By 2020, renewables are projected to grow from 6.84 quads to 9.26 quads, nuclear power is projected to grow from 8.21 quads to 8.99 quads, while fossil fuels are projected to grow from 84.73 quads to 87.19 quads. While renewables show the biggest percentage growth, fossil fuels are still projected to grow by a slightly larger absolute amount. Additionally, the EIA projects that CO2 emissions will grow from 5814 million metric tons in 2009 to 5985 million metric tons in 2020.
The Obama administration has called for a 17% reduction in CO2 emission by 2020—a rather modest goal—but this would mean that, rather than the 2.46 quad increase in fossil fuel energy by 2020, that we would have to reduce fossil fuel use by 14.4 quads. Even this modest target is an enormous challenge, representing a more energy production than the EIA projects for all renewables in 2020. This goal can only be reached by increasing efforts to bring renewable energy online and by simultaneously pursuing conservation at every level possible.