But Energy from Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power Has Also Grown, along with CO2 Emissions

This blog was written by our partner Ken Bossong of the SUN DAY Campaign.

Forty-five years ago, on October 17, 1973, Arab oil producers cut production by 5% and instituted an oil embargo against Israel’s allies including the United States. Production cuts deepened in the ensuing weeks. By year’s end, production had been cut to 25% of September levels. The embargo lasted until March 1974. The experience prompted then-President Richard Nixon to call for an national effort to secure “energy independence” and thereby launch a decades-long quest to refashion the nation’s energy policies and energy consumption.

An analysis by the SUN DAY Campaign of both historic and recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that while progress has been made on some fronts, in other ways America’s energy situation may have actually worsened over the past 45 years.[1]

On the plus side, renewable energy sources (i.e., biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) have nearly tripled the amount of energy, as measured in quadrillion Btu’s (quads), they contribute to the total energy mix. In particular, since 1973, wind, solar, and biofuels have emerged from being essentially non-existent to become significant players in the energy market today while biomass and geothermal both showed strong growth.

Also encouraging is that the share of U.S. energy provided by fossil fuels (i.e., coal, gas, oil) has dropped from over 92% in 1973 to just under 80% today. Moreover, the amount of energy, again measured in quads, coming from coal in 2018 is almost the same as in 1973 notwithstanding a much larger economy. In addition, numerous analyses show that the energy intensity of the U.S. economy has improve by at least 50% since the embargo.

However, those gains have been offset, at least in part, by an increase of over 40% in total domestic energy consumption including a 25% increase in the use of fossil fuels. As a consequence, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel use are 10.5% higher in 2018 than in 1973 due primarily to natural gas whose emission levels are 40% greater than 45 years ago.

In addition, nuclear power’s share of the nation’s energy mix has grown from about 1.5% in 1973 to over 8% today – along with its attendant safety, proliferation, and radioactive waste concerns.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: In 1973, renewable energy consisted of just hydropower (2.89 quads) and wood (1.46 quads) plus a trace of geothermal (0.02 quads). Combined, they accounted for 6.2% of the U.S. energy mix. By 2018, renewable energy consumption had nearly tripled (an increase of 271%) and provided 11.8% of the nation’s energy use.

In the 45 years since the embargo, energy from hydropower has remained almost unchanged and its share of total energy use actually declined from over 4% to about 3% today. While wood expanded by almost half from 1.46 quads to 2.17 quads, its share of the total has grown only slightly from 2.1% to 2.2%.

Solar panels. Photo: NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

The growth by renewables is primarily attributable to wind, biofuels, solar, and biomass waste. Combined, they played essentially no role in the nation’s energy mix in 1973. By 2018, wind was contributing 2.82 quads, biofuels 2.23 quads, solar 0.95 quads, and waste 0.49 quads. Combined, solar and wind alone now account for almost four percent (i.e., 3.7%) of the nation’s energy use and almost 10% of its electrical generation. In addition, over the past 45 years, geothermal has increased by 10-fold to 0.21 quads but still remains a small component (0.2%) of the total energy mix.

FOSSIL FUELS: In 1973, fossil fuels provided almost 64.5 quads of energy (oil – 31.13 quads, gas – 20.87 quads, coal – 12.46 quads) which accounted for 92.1% of total U.S. energy use. By 2018, their combined total had grown by a quarter to 80.5 quads but their share of the nation’s energy mix was down to 79.8%.

Coal use in 2018 (12.54 quads) was barely higher than its consumption in 1973 (12.46 quads) and substantially lower than the 22.80 quads used at its high point in 2005. Oil use today (36.51 quads) is 17.3% higher than the 1973 level (31.13 quads) but, again, still significantly lower than its all-time high (40.3 quads) also recorded in 2005. However, natural gas is on track to set a new record in 2018 (31.44 quads) – a level more than 50% higher than the amount used in 1973 (20.87 quads).

CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS: CO2 emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels are 10.5% higher in 2018 than in 1973. The increase is overwhelmingly due to expanded use of natural gas whose CO2 emissions are 40.5% higher today than they were 45 years ago. Notwithstanding significantly higher levels recorded in 2005, by 2018 CO2 emissions from oil were only 0.9% higher than in 1973 while those from coal were actually 1.2% below their 1973 level.

NUCLEAR POWER: Use of nuclear power increased nearly eight-fold from roughly 1.07 quads in 1973 to 8.42 quads today, expanding its share of the nation’s energy mix from 1.5% to 8.4%.

TOTAL ENERGY USE: Energy use from all sources totaled 69.9 quads in 1973and is on track to hit 100.9 quads in 2018 – an increase of 44.3%. That would roughly match the all-time record of 101.0 quads set in 2007. Multiple analyses, though, note that the U.S. economy has grown at a significantly faster rate over the past 45 years than its increase in energy consumption with the result that energy intensity today has declined significantly. In fact, without the numerous energy efficiency improvements made since 1973, the U.S. would require about 50% more energy to deliver the current GDP.[2]



[1] See EIA’s “Monthly Energy Review” issued on September 25, 2018 with data through June 30, 2018. The data in this analysis is drawn from the following tables:

Table 1.1: https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec1_3.pdf

Table 1.3: https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec1_7.pdf

Table 10.1: https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec10_3.pdf

Table 12.1: https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec12_3.pdf

[2] See, for example, https://www.ase.org/sites/ase.org/files/resources/Media%20browser/ee_commission_history_report_2-1-13.pdf (see p.3) and https://aceee.org/blog/2015/06/35-years-energy-efficiency-progress

Notes on Methodology:

  • EIA provides data for CO2 emissions in calendar year 1973 as well as for the first half of 2018. For the full 2018 calendar year, the data employed in this analysis was double that for the first half of the year.
  • For energy consumption from each energy source, EIA provides data for 1970 and 1975 but not 1973. Inasmuch as the beginning of the embargo – October 17, 1973 – is roughly the mid-point between January 1, 1970 and December 31, 1975, this analysis used the average of the 1970 and the 1975 figures.