In 1949 the United States consumed 32 quadrillion BTUs of energy. By 2013, our total energy consumption grew to almost 98 quadrillion BTU’s. Per person, that is an average of 314 million BTU’s, almost 50% increase in per capita consumption. Over that 64 year time span, that works out to an annual increase of 0.6%. Considering all of the technology driven lifestyle changes that have taken place in those 7 decades, the increase actually seems pretty reasonable.
What might surprise you is that throughout that entire time frame, renewable energy has played a role in powering our country. In 1949, The United States energy mix included 9.3% from renewable sources, in the form of hydropower and wood. Over the years, we’ve added a number of effective clean energy sources, and by 2013 national energy sources expanded to include biomass, biofuels, wind, waste incineration, geothermal, and solar.
With the veritable explosion of clean forms of energy over the last few decades you would expect that the share of renewable energy in our national mix of power would be rapidly rising. According to the US Energy Information Agency, by 2013 unfortunately, the total portion of US power consumption supplied by renewable resources grew to only 9.5%. In the span of seven decades, the US has managed to increase the share of renewable energy by only 2 tenths of a percent. That is a compounded annualized growth rate of 0.035%.
As a nation, the increase in the use of renewable energy, at a time with significant technological advancements, under performed the relatively shallow growth in our per capita power consumption by a factor of 17. How can this be?
Since 1916 the United States government has supported fossil fuel development in the form of subsidies and tax breaks. When we consider the central role that the availability of energy plays in our economy, this seems like a prudent decision for the time. As renewable energy options became available, additional subsidies were, in fact, created to support their development as well. As a nation, unfortunately, the investment has been far from equitable.
Financial investment is a good indicator of what one values. We all tend to ‘put your money where your mouth is”. This is true as individuals and it is true of nations. When it comes to funding energy in the United States, unfortunately, the commitment has been and remains, fossil fuels. This financial prioritization is, of course, counter to the sound advice of credible international experts who are telling us that we must ween ourselves from fossil fuels. Fully, 1/3rd of all known oil reserves need to stay in the ground by 2050 in order to avoid some of the worse climate change model projections. That is according to the IEA, IPCC, and the UK Energy Research Centre.
According to a report by DBL Investors, “federal commitment to [oil and gas] was five times greater than the federal commitment to renewables during the first 15 years of each subsidy’s life”. In fact, the total investment made by the US government in renewable energy is less than what is made annually for the fossil fuel industry.
The exact amount of subsidy that goes for fossil fuel is, frankly, a little slippery to pin down. Subsidies take the form of direct cash investments, corporate tax breaks, and indirect support in the form of consumption incentives like sales tax exemptions. According to Oil Change International, the total subsidy provided to the fossil fuel industry in 2013 was $21.6 billion, which included $5.1 billion to support fossil fuel exploration. In addition, the federal government spends $1.4 billion annually to fund fossil fuel exploration overseas. That is a total of $6.5 billion of oil exploration support for an industry that made $93 billion in profits for 2013.
Total US EPA annual budget: $8.9B.
Total US Oil Industry subsidy: $21.5B
Mr. Koch is not alone. A 2011 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 74% of Americans support “eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries”. Meanwhile a 2012 United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll found that “almost two-thirds—64 percent—of those surveyed said that Congress should extend federal tax credits that encourage production of alternative-energy sources.”
It is time for us as individuals, and as a nation, to prioritize our financial investments so that they are in alignment with our values and beliefs. It is time for us to find ways to fund the development of renewable energy sources to the level required not only to mitigate man-made climate change impacts, but also to avoid the impending energy crisis that dependence on a finite resource is certain to bring about.
Photo: Alelthor via Flickr