• Petroleum remains the biggest energy source in the United States but has passed its 2005 peak.
  • In 2019, renewable power consumption overtook coal for the first time in 130 years.
  • Non-fossil fuels, including nuclear, now represent 20% of US energy consumption.

On 4 July 1776, the United States declared its independence.

A new chart from the US Energy Information Administration (coincidentally based at Washington’s Independence Avenue) shows the revolution that has taken place in US energy since.

Back then, all energy consumption was renewable, because wood (which can be replanted) was the fuel of choice. Today’s trends include the rise of green power and the continued decline of coal.

However, the EIA also gives important context to these eye-catching headlines: last year fossil fuels still accounted for 80% of all US energy consumption, and a near-record amount of energy was used.

The full data can be found in the June edition of the EIA’s Monthly Energy Review.

Energy consumption in the United States (1776-2019).
Petroleum is the most-consumed type of energy in the United States.
Image: EIA

The fossil fuel story

Despite the growing interest in sustainable energy – a theme of the World Economic Forum initiative the Great Reset – this EIA chart shows clearly what a vital role hydrocarbons still play in the world’s largest economy.

Petroleum displaced “king coal” as the most-consumed energy source in the United States back in 1950. Despite its place at the top of the graph, its consumption actually peaked in 2005.

Americans used 36.7 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of petroleum in 2019 – a single Btu being the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of a pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. So it’s a mighty power source.

Aviation

What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

As other sectors proceed to decarbonize, the aviation sector could account for a much higher share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by mid-century than its 2%-3% share today. With the number of air travel passengers expected to double by 2035, there's a strong urgency for the aviation industry to act to ensure it can meet this demand in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can reduce the life-cycle carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80%, but they currently make up less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. Enabling a shift from fossil fuels to SAFs will require a significant increase in production, which is a costly investment.

Launched in September 2019, the Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) Coalition is a global initiative driving the transition to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) as part of the aviation industry’s ambitious efforts to achieve carbon-neutral flying.

Run in collaboration with the Energy Transitions Commission and the Rocky Mountain Institute, with the Air Transport Action Group as an advisory partner, CST brings together government leaders, climate experts and CEOs from aviation, energy, finance and other sectors who agree on the urgent need to help the aviation industry reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Learn more about the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition's impact and contact us to find out how you can get involved.

Natural gas is, however, hot on its heels – reaching a record level of consumption in 2019. The US now produces almost all the natural gas it uses, much of it from the land-based hydraulic rock fracturing or “fracking” industry.

Demand for gas is driven largely by demand from the US electric power industry, which has in turn led to a decline in coal consumption – down 15% last year, one of the largest declines of any power source.

At 533 million tonnes, coal use in the US is now at its lowest since the 1970s. The fall has also been dramatic: it was at its peak as recently as 2005.

Energy consumption in the united States (1776-2019)
Non-fossil fuel sources of energy accounted for 20% of US energy consumption in 2019.
Image: EIA

The non-fossil picture

The other major trend, shown in green on the second chart, is the rise in all forms of non-fossil fuels. What is also noticeable is how significant a role nuclear plays here – operating at a record capacity in 2019.

The first chart shows a milestone for renewables: surpassing US coal consumption in 2019 for the first time in 130 years. Last year was also significant for wind energy, which overtook hydroelectric power to become the leading renewable energy source.

However, a comparison from history shown by the charts is worth noting: US wind energy levels today are still only where wood consumption was in the mid-to-late 1800s.

For now at least, America remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels.