Inside America’s Energy Addiction

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

America is addicted to energy.

We drill miles under the ocean, run nation-length pipelines, and even go to war just to get our fix. Our reliance on cheap fuel sources has helped bring untold prosperity to the United States, powering industry and residential expansion, and supplying everyone with ample power to properly heat and cool their homes. There is also plenty of oil power the millions of vehicles, not to mention ships, airplanes, and most other methods of transport.

Since the United States depends so largely upon energy, we have needed to develop several reliable sources from which to harvest it. Not only are traditional fossil fuels on that list, but new developments and innovations are leading us to exciting ways of harnessing energy every year. One hundred years ago, harvesting power from nuclear plants, the sun, and even the tides was impossible. Now, they are all beginning to become major sources of electricity production.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration published their brief on energy use in America, outlining the major sources and the major users by sector. Their findings show that power use varies very widely depending on the specific sector, and that studying the specifics of how each area of the economy uses power can lead to important insights. Different energy sources, whether it be coal or solar energy, are all measured in different ways. But thanks to the BTU, or British Thermal Unit, we have a medium with which to compare them all. One BTU is equal to the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

By using the BTU scale, the EIA is able to compare many different forms of energy within the U.S. economy, investigating how they are being used, and by whom.

primary_energy_use_by_source_2013-large

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

As seen in the graphic above, the biggest source of energy put to use by Americans is petroleum. Petroleum is used to power vehicles and is in high demand by the industrial and transportation sectors, and its price point is often a major economic indicator. Petroleum products are made by processing crude oil, which is what energy companies pull out of the ground at drilling sites. Major expansion in crude oil production in different areas around the country, namely North Dakota and Texas, have led to a big increase in employment and revenue for energy companies, particularly within those states.

One other area of big expansion is within the natural gas sector. 27 percent of the nation’s energy usage comes in the form of natural gas, which has been seeing price drops and rapid production growth following the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That extraction method, however, is what makes natural gas so contentious on a political level. Hydraulic fracturing has become infamous for being a rather dirty and dangerous process, leading to poisonous methane leaks and earthquakes. But that hasn’t stopped its rapid market expansion.

The third largest energy source in America is coal. Coal has been under the gun — politically, anyway — for a while now, as legislators and environmentalists have taken aim at trying to lessen the country’s dependence on it. Coal is incredibly dirty, and its extraction can be incredibly dangerous — even deadly. A large portion of U.S. power plants are fueled by coal, which is where most of its use takes place.

Renewables and nuclear energy bring up the rear, representing 9.3 and 8.3 percent of the market each. Renewable energy includes several different things, like solar, wind, tidal, and hydroelectric power. This sector in particular looks primed for big growth, with offshore wind farms being planned around the country, and solar panels dropping in price and becoming more efficient. As for nuclear power, many states in the northeast rely heavily on nuclear plants for electricity. Nuclear power’s growth has been stymied by disasters in Fukishima and Chernobyl, leading to fears of irreversible damage should something go wrong.

primary_energy_use_by_sector-2013-large

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

So, where do these resources eventually end up? The answer is numerous different industries, but most of them go towards generating electricity. Electric power takes primary resources, like coal or petroleum, and transfers their energies into electricity. That electricity is then sold off and used by industries in other sectors, as well as residential and commercial customers.

The NIA explains this clearly in their brief, stating that, “The electric power sector uses primary energy to generate electricity, which makes electricity a secondary, rather than a primary, energy source. Nearly all electricity is used in buildings and by industry. This means that the total amounts of energy used by residential and commercial buildings, industry, and transportation are actually higher than the amounts shown on the graphics when electricity is included.”

After electric power production, transportation is the next biggest user of energy within the U.S. economy. Transportation is mostly fueled by petroleum, but does eat into renewables and natural gas a little bit. Transportation used almost 27 quadrillion BTUs in 2013 alone, almost triple of what the residential and commercial sector consumed.

By a long shot, most of the energy in the U.S. goes toward electricity production and the transportation industries. The industrial sector does eat up quite a bit of energy itself, and the residential sector is dwarfed in comparison to the others. In coming years, it would be reasonable to expect the usage of renewable energies to increase, while coal and petroleum decline. The sectors putting those energy sources to use may not shuffle as much, but can instead adapt to changing technologies and ways of harnessing different sources.

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