US Clean Energy Transition: Too Little, Too Late?

The good news is we’re likely to be using less energy as individuals and measured against economic output come 2040. The bad news is we’ll still be using more total energy, and most of what we use will still come from fossil fuels.

This is our takeaway from the Energy Information Administration’s newly released Annual Energy Outlook 2013. The report presents the agency’s “reference case,” which it defines as “a business-as-usual trend estimate, given known technology and technological and demographic trends.”

eia energy outlook

Energy use per capita and per dolar of GDP, 1980-2040, with 1980=11 (image via EIA)

Efficiency gains and a shift away from energy-intensive industries will drive a decline of about 15 percent in per capita energy consumption from 2011 to 2040 and a near halving of energy intensity, the EIA said.

How much optimism one should take from that information is open to debate. As energy analyst Chris Nedler recently wrote, “Energy intensity – energy use per dollar of GDP – is the last refuge of fossil fuel proponents. Instead of measuring real improvement in energy efficiency, it hides the outsourcing of dirty, coal-based manufacturing to developing countries and changes during times of economic growth or recession, irrespective of efficiency.”

eia 2013 outlook

Renewable electricity generation by type, including end-use generation, 2008-2040, in billion kilowatt-hours (image via EIA)

The EIA does see non-hydropower renewable energy sourcing growing fast in the coming three decades, with solar power the biggest gainer by far. Starting at 4.52 GW of capacity (including end-use or “distributed”capacity) in 2011, the reference case sees solar more than quadrupling to 22.35 GW by 2020 and then more than doubling from there to 50.96 GW by 2040.

Impressive as those numbers sound, they still mean a frightfully small part of the electricity will come from new, clean energy sources. Solar production, for instance, even growing at a 9.8 percent annual rate, would offer just shy of 100 billion kilowatt-hours in 2040, a pittance compared to coal’s projected 1,829.35 billion kWh, or natural gas’s 1,582.43 billion kWh.

The same grim truth is reflected in the reference case for total energy use. Yes, our reliance on fossil fuels falls, but only from 82 percent to 78 percent.

The EIA’s explanation for its reference case offers some insight into how the U.S. might do better in moving to renewables:

Near-term growth (of renewables) is strong as developers build capacity to qualify for tax credits that expire at the end of 2012, 2013, and 2016. After 2016, capacity growth through 2030 is minimal, given relatively slower growth in electricity demand, low natural gas prices, and the stagnation or expiration of the state and federal policies that support renewable capacity additions. As the need for new generation capacity increases, however, and as renewables become increasingly cost-competitive in selected regions, growth in nonhydropower renewable generation capacity rebounds during the final decade of the Reference case projection from 2030 to 2040.

The obvious conclusion is that continuing the push with strong pro-renewables policies in the middle-term – after 2016 and through 2030 – will be vital.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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