IF THE GASOLINE you bought at the pump could be used as the fuel source for all of America’s energy needs, in 2010 the country would have burned 859.7 billion gallons. If crude oil could supply all our transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial energy consumption, then in that same year we would have burned through 16.9 billion barrels of it (compared to the 7.2 billion barrels actually consumed).
In 2010, the United States consumed 98.003 quadrillion Btu (British Thermal Units) of energy from various sources. For comparison’s sake, a gallon of gasoline generates 114,000 Btu when burned. To put our country’s energy needs in perspective consider this: in 2008 when annual U.S. energy consumption was 99.268 quadrillion Btu, total global consumption was 505 quadrillion Btu. A country with approximately 4.5% of the world’s population accounts for roughly 20% of global energy use.
The energy needs of the country, particularly those of the electrical grid and the transportation sector, differ vastly. This has lead to the diversification of fuel sources used to power an infrastructure that supports our modern economy. The distinctive needs of each aspect of that infrastructure are better served by different types of fuel. As a basic economic reality, cheap energy sources have always been preferred.
Over the past few decades, however, other concerns have arisen about our energy consumption, putting pressure on the single-minded pursuit of cheap energy. Ensuring reliable access to energy resources, and the regions that export them, has been a lasting issue in foreign affairs. The long-term availability of fossil fuels is coming into question at a time when global energy demand is exploding. In addition to this human element, there are health and ecological concerns. Extracting fossil fuels is a dirty process, and burning them has health and environmental implications. Possibly most critical of all is the prospect that burning fossil fuels causes anthropogenic global warming, which (if happening) could be steering us towards a catastrophic climate change. 1
The variety of energy sources available to us today are competing amidst this chaotic web of issues. A fuel source may be clean and renewable, but expensive and unreliable, or domestic and cheap, but dirty and emission intensive. All this must still be balanced against technological realities: we cannot run cars and planes on wind, nor power cities with solar alone. The costs and benefits of each fuel source are still shifting. Understanding how their strengths and weaknesses relate in the broader context is critical to pursuing smart energy goals and policies. 2
- "Cheap, Reliable, or Clean? What Energy Needs to Be," American Forum. ↩
- "What Powers the Country?" American Forum. ↩