New Energy Report: There's a Bright Spot

Crossposted with Note: This post was updated to include the graph at the bottom.

Has America's love affair with fossil fuels begun to sour while we weren't looking?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Review 2009 was released in August. There are two aspects of the report that will no doubt receive a good deal of attention. Both seem like environmental victories, but I'm not so sure.

Energy Consumption Down

In 2009, total energy consumption in the United States fell by almost five percent relative to 2008 and by almost seven percent relative to 2007. With this drop, last year's U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption fell by an estimated seven percent relative to 2008. All well and good, but the decrease is clearly a direct result of the economic downturn and will almost certainly reverse course once the economy recovers.

Renewables Up, Sort Of ...

Between 2007 and 2009, total consumption from renewable energy sources grew from about 6.7 quadrillion BTUs to 7.7 quadrillion BTUs; that's an increase in market share relative to total U.S. consumption from about 6.6 percent to a little more than 8 percent.

Sounds great, but not so much when you look a little deeper. There were significant increases [pdf] in wind and hydroelectric that contributed to the uptick in renewables -- great. But the largest single contributor to the increase in renewables in the EIA's statistics is from biofuels -- especially corn ethanol with its questionable carbon-neutral bona fides. Take out the increase from biofuels and you cut the jump in renewables [pdf] by about forty percent.

Fossil Fuel Market Share Is Down

I found the most intriguing part of the EIA report in the fine print. Specifically the data on energy consumption from fossil fuels since 2007. Consider the following:

Percent of U.S. Energy Consumption by Fuel Source

All Fossil Fuels


Natural Gas


2008 83.5 22.4 23.8 37.3
2009 78.4 19.8 23.4 35.3
2007-2009 -7.8 - 2.9 -0.3  -4.5

The percentage of total U.S. consumption from fossil fuels is down. And the contribution from natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, dropped the least.

We need to bear in mind that the numbers for 2009 are still preliminary, and the small changes from previous years have occurred during unusual economic times. Nevertheless, they are tantalizing.

For instance, between 2008 and 2009 coal consumption experienced the largest drop since EIA began keeping records in 1949. And beginning in 2005, petroleum consumption began the second largest year-on-year decline since 1949. (The largest drop was the oil shock that began in the late 1970s.)

Could this be the first sign of a national trend toward lower-carbon, cleaner fuels? Stranger things have happened.