Renewable energy is growing fast in the U.S., but fossil fuels still dominate

Renewable energy is growing fast in the U.S., but fossil fuels still dominate

The FiNANCIAL -- Most Americans (77%) say it’s more important for the United States to develop alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power, than to produce more coal, oil and other fossil fuels, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Which raises the question: How does the U.S. meet its vast energy needs, and how, if at all, has that changed?

The answer, as one might expect, is complicated. Solar and wind power use has grown at a rapid rate over the past decade or so, but as of 2018 those sources accounted for less than 4% of all the energy used in the U.S. (That’s the most recent full year for which data is available.) As far back as we have data, most of the energy used in the U.S. has come from coal, oil and natural gas. In 2018, those “fossil fuels” fed about 80% of the nation’s energy demand, down slightly from 84% a decade earlier. Although coal use has declined in recent years, natural gas use has soared, while oil’s share of the nation’s energy tab has fluctuated between 35% and 40%.

The total amount of energy used in the U.S. – everything from lighting and heating homes to cooking meals, fueling factories, driving cars and powering smartphones – hit 101.2 quadrillion Btu in 2018, the highest level since data collection began in 1949, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).

(Short for British thermal unit, Btu is often used in the energy industry – not to mention the home-appliance business – as a common yardstick to measure and compare different types of energy. One Btu is the amount of energy needed to heat 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit at sea level. It’s equivalent to about 1,055 joules in the metric system, or the heat released by burning a common wooden kitchen match.)