By Charlene Porter
The United States is making steady progress in reducing energy consumption, increasing efficiency and deploying alternative energy technologies, actions that contribute to lower levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and could transform the country to a low-carbon economy.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz offered that overview of the nation’s progress in a speech at a Washington research and analysis organization October 24. The Center for Strategic and International Studies invited Moniz to speak in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Arab oil embargo, an action that jolted the United States into a new reality regarding energy consumption and sources.
By many analyses, the embargo sparked new U.S. awareness about the political and economic price of oil, motivated investments in energy efficiency and alternative fuels, and led to the creation of the Department of Energy (DOE). The department is a wellspring for energy innovation and research, but also conducts extensive analysis and produces voluminous data on energy sources, markets, consumption and other key trends in the sector.
A lesser reliance on oil, achieved through greater diversification in energy sources, Moniz said, is one of the most significant changes in the nation’s energy profile since the 1970s. “Besides oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar and other renewables, biofuels are now 10 percent of the supply.”
Moniz said the nation has made a “huge advance” in how it uses oil, especially in the auto fleet. Vehicles of 1973 averaged about 11 miles per gallon (4.7 km/liter) of fuel. Federal standards adopted in the embargo’s aftermath required manufacturers to increase vehicle fuel efficiency.
As a result, the average 21st-century vehicle will travel more than twice the distance of 1970s-era vehicles using an equal amount of fuel. Vehicles today average almost 25 mpg (10.6 km/liter), Moniz said, and the industry is working to meet an average of 50 mpg (21.3 km/liter) by 2025.
Developing alternative-fuel vehicles is a key strategy toward reducing the nation’s oil dependence, reducing GHGs and moving toward a low-carbon economy, he said. Hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles have made strong progress in the U.S. market with consumer adaptation exceeding the pace projected several years ago. Technologies for biofuel vehicles and all-electric vehicles are still evolving to become price-competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles, but industry and market interest is accelerating the process.
“These technologies are not as far out as people think,” Moniz said.
Lighting is another energy-consumption sector where use of more efficient technology is moving in a positive direction, Moniz said. Commercial and residential lighting consumes 12 percent of U.S. electricity production, according to the Energy Information Administration, the DOE research office.
Better, more efficient light bulbs have been on the market for some while, but they have been high-priced. Many consumers have been slow to pay more for the initial light bulb purchase, despite the knowledge that the new light-emitting diode (LED) technology will last far longer than the standard light bulb. This technology, barely changed in a century, is notoriously poor in efficiency, losing significant amounts of energy in waste heat.
Moniz said he expects a sharp change in consumer behavior, since WalMart, the nation’s largest retailer, dropped the price of the bulbs by about one-third in recent weeks. Price reduction also appears to be leading to increased adaptation of a new solar technology, Moniz said, signifying further incremental progress toward a low-carbon, clean-energy economy.
DOE, energy researchers and energy companies are all working to research, develop and deploy a broader, more diverse portfolio of sources and technologies. All these paths lead in the same direction, Moniz said, to lower costs so cleaner technologies are competitive and can create a low-carbon future.
In a related development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced October 23 that GHG emissions from electric power plants have declined about 10 percent over the last two years. The decline is attributed to a wide-scale shift in the industry from coal to natural gas as a fuel choice.