America’s record high energy consumption, explained in 3 charts

Author: Umair Irfan | Source:

Renewable energy is booming, but it still needs a lot of help.

The US Energy Information Administration dropped some troubling new data this week: US energy consumption hit a record high in 2018 in large part due to the growing use of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels provided 80 percent of total energy used in 2018. Consumption of natural gas and petroleum grew by 4 percent, while coal consumption declined by 4 percent compared to the year before. Renewable energy production also reached a record high last year, climbing 3 percent relative to 2017.

The growth in energy use is largely a function of the growing US economy. More goods, more travel, more services mean using more fuel and electricity. However, that also means we are moving further away from our already limited ambitions in fighting climate change.

The EIA’s latest numbers starkly reveal where we are and just how far we have to go if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century.

And it follows a report from the Rhodium Group earlier this year that found that US greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.4 percent in 2018 compared to the year before, reversing a three-year decline in the production of heat-trapping gases that contribute to climate change.

Here are six key takeaways from the new EIA report:

1) As energy efficiency improves, energy use is unlikely to climb much higher

While 2018 saw a record high in US energy use, it was only 0.3 percent higher than the previous record, set in 2007.

Between the last peak and the current one, you may recall, was a major economic downturn — the Great Recession. So the rise in energy use is something of a regression to the mean.

Higher demand in 2018 was largely linked to a spike in natural gas usage early in the year when homeowners cranked up the heat during the coldest parts of winter. EIA previously noted that while energy production in the United States is poised to grow, overall energy use is likely to see minimal changes in the coming decades as energy efficiency improves.

2) Decoupling emissions from the economy is not impossible, but it’s hard

The United States has made substantial progress in cutting emissions from electricity, largely by switching natural gas for coal in electricity generation. Natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide emissions of coal for the same amount of electricity, so the switch has driven down electricity sector emissions even as the overall US economy has grown.

But as the 2018 numbers show, progress is vulnerable to things like the weather. And while natural gas is cleaner than coal, it still has a carbon footprint, so as we use more, we emit more.

3) Renewable energy is booming, but it still needs help

Wind and solar are now the largest sources of new electricity generation in the United States as hardware and installation costs continue to decline. However, renewables are still a tiny share of the overall energy mix.

If the goal is to decarbonize the economy, technology improvements and market forces won’t be enough to take a bite out of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we need more states and cities — not to mention the federal government — to mandate a full transition to clean energy. Check out Washington state’s new 100 percent clean electricity bill for one of the best ways to go about that.

4) Power generation isn’t the only climate problem

As electricity sector emissions have declined, transportation emissions have grown. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Though cars and trucks are becoming more fuel efficient and increasingly running on electricity, other modes of transit, namely air travel, still run on fossil fuels. Growing demand for flights is a key reason why US energy use and emissions rose in 2018.

5) Coal in America is collapsing

Coal was the one fossil fuel that still saw a decline in 2018. While employment in the coal sector has grown slightly since President Trump took office, coal burning has continued to die off. The US retired 16 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity and saw coal consumption dip to its lowest levels in 39 years in 2018, the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back environmental rules on coal plants notwithstanding. More coal plant retirements are in store this year.

6) The longer we wait to curb fossil fuel use, the greater the damage to the climate

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, scientists are warning that the world is running out of time to curb them aggressively enough to avert devastating amounts of warming. The longer we wait to take action, the more drastic changes we’ll need. So while proposals like the Green New Deal are facing scrutiny for all the social justice elements baked in, the mechanics of actually curbing greenhouse gas emissions remain the larger and more difficult challenge.

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