The vision of a “green” economy fueled by wind, sun and renewable fuels is powerfully appealing. But there’s a huge disconnect between this vision and the reality of America’s energy needs.
The widespread use of fossil fuels — oil, natural gas and coal — has enabled the United States and other industrialized countries to create unprecedented prosperity. The inconvenient truth is that no one has yet developed an alternative to fossil fuels capable of providing energy on a comparable scale at a comparable cost.
As the Obama administration continues its push for a moratorium on deepwater drilling and earmarks an additional $2 billion in stimulus funds for solar energy companies, Americans need to recognize that developing cleaner energy sources and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is not impossible, but it’s a huge challenge that is much more complicated than the bumper stickers and slogans suggest.
Shifting from one energy source to another is difficult because their costs vary greatly and they are not necessarily interchangeable. Some 84 percent of the energy we Americans consume comes from fossil fuels today. Only 8 percent comes from renewable sources — most of that from hydroelectric power.
For all the hype over wind and solar, the reality is that they contribute very little to our energy supply, with wind accounting for less than 1 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and solar for just one-tenth of 1 percent. Together, they could power the country for all of three days a year.
What’s more, renewables are extremely expensive relative to fossil fuels because of the huge up-front capital investments needed to develop them — something that won’t change dramatically any time soon even if government mandates and subsidies continue to increase and there’s a sharp rise in fossil fuel prices.
Moreover, petroleum, natural gas, coal, nuclear power and renewable energy are not interchangeable and can not necessarily be substituted for one another. Wind and solar power, for example, cannot be used for transportation. And nuclear power can be used only to generate electricity.
To make intelligent choices, Americans need to see the big picture. They need to understand that nearly 28 percent of total U.S. energy use goes to transportation and that 95 percent of that comes from petroleum, while just 2 percent comes from natural gas and 3 percent from renewable energy.
Americans need to understand that industry consumes about 21 percent of total U.S. energy. Some 42 percent of that also comes from petroleum, 40 percent from natural gas, 9 percent from coal and10 percent from renewable energy, mostly hydroelectric.
Our homes, offices and businesses consume approximately 11 percent of the energy we use. Some 16 percent of that comes from petroleum as well, 76 percent from natural gas, and 1 percent each from coal and renewables.
Finally, our electric utilities consume just over 40 percent of the energy we use. Just 1 percent of that comes from petroleum, 9 percent from hydro and other renewable sources, 17 percent from natural gas, 21 percent from nuclear power and 51 percent from coal.
The point is: Fully 84 percent of the energy we consume comes from petroleum, natural gas and coal. Even with the government heavily subsidizing and promoting green energy with some $80 billion in tax credits and subsidies in the 2009 stimulus bill alone, the Energy Information Administration projects that the United States will still likely get three-fourths of its energy from fossil fuels 25 years from now.
The “green dream” needs to face this reality.
Kerry Lynch is a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.