Economics, Energy and the Environment

Energy Fact of the Week: We’re Off Oil Already

A cliché of the energy debate is that we need to adopt wind, solar, and other “renewable” energy technologies to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. The new executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, said exactly this on CNNC with me back at the time of the BP oil spill last spring. This is another example of the rampant ignorance of the nation’s energy conversation. We very quickly made a transition away from using oil to generate electricity over 30 years ago.

The data in the figure below, taken from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, compares the various sources of net electricity generation from 1960 to 2009.

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In 1978, oil was the second-largest fuel used to generate electricity, behind coal. But since the oil shocks of the 1970s the United States has reduced oil-fired electricity by 90 percent. Whereas it was once true that using alternative energy (wind, solar, whatever) lowered our dependence on oil (foreign or domestic), that is no longer true.  Windmills and solar panels don’t help us “get off oil” at all any more. And what the lines also show is that the greatest growth of electricity came mostly from coal and natural gas (though nuclear power has increased its power output 38 percent since 1990 without building a single new nuclear plant)—not wind, solar, biomass, or other non-fossil fuel sources. Nearly all of our oil consumption today is used in the transportation sector, for planes, trains, and automobiles. Further progress in reducing oil use will have to come from developing alternative fuels for the transportation sector.

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