The Need for Energy Conservation in the United States

The United States does not have single energy “problem”.  It has lots of problem areas where improvements could be made.  These can be either by improving supply, or by reducing demand.  This section speaks to reducing demand.  Introducing you to these proven, installed, and working alternatives and how they can be deployed is our primary purpose in this section.

When you opened this document, a list of tested alternatives to current national policy was presented in the main menu. If you are not already persuaded about the need for these alternatives, please read the discussion below.

One can argue about the problem of energy supply for a long time.  These debates can focus on:

  1. How much energy supply is there we already know about and get out of the ground for a “reasonable” amount of money;
  2. How much more would there be if we raised the amount of money we would be willing to pay?
  3. If we got it out of the ground, does it come from friendlies, or locations on the globe which create the possibility of our being held hostage to energy supply?
  4. Can the process of transportation be disrupted by bad guys?
  5. If we get it here, and burn it under pollution controls which don’t cost too much, what does it do to the quality of our air, water, and the health of our population?

For purpose of this website, we are going to try to touch all of these issues in summary fashion, and furnish you with references if you want to dig deeper.

Each year the United States consumes far more energy than any other country.  We are five percent of the world's population, and consume 23% of the world’s energy!  The 5% of the world's population that lives in the U.S. has more environmental impact through energy consumption than the 51% that live in the other five largest countries. [1]

The majority of this energy is derived from fossil fuels: in 2005, it was estimated that 40% of the nation's energy came from petroleum, (65% of which is imported !) [2] 23% from coal, and 23% from natural gas. The remaining 14% was supplied by nuclear power, hydroelectric dams, and miscellaneous renewable energy sources.[3] Note that 86% of all energy used in the United States is carbon based.  That means that when it is burned, it makes people sick.  More discussion on that topic is found elsewhere on this website.

One of the basic, yet most confusing parts of this national debate is what the word “cost” means.  To most, it means “how much did I have to pay at the gasoline pump or in my electric bill”.  To others, it means “What was the true cost to our society, when we count the national defense costs, public health costs, and other subsidies furnished the energy producer by the government (for example, the Federal Government subsidizes the cost of insurance costs for nuclear power plants).

To cite but one example, a gallon of gasoline may cost $3.00 at the pump, but its true total cost to our society is between $10 and $15 when all the subsidies and costs paid by others in poor health are factored in.[4],[5],[6]

The question of what “cost” means is important because when various answers of the question “Within the United States, how much petroleum or natural gas energy is left” are given, the answer always has an assumption which is essential, and usually not clearly stated.  That assumption is found when the question is rephrased to read “How much energy supply is left at xxxx dollars per barrel or some other unit.”

Think of it this way:  If you hired neighborhood kids to search far and wide for recycle-able plastic bottles, for which you would pay five cents, hordes of youngsters, would quickly locate all the easy and visible ones.  After some point, they would have to go farther from home, and carry their load back farther, and would likely begin to ask for more money.  In other words, your supply of bottles is entirely dependent upon how much you are willing to pay for them.   If your customer for the plastic asked you how many bottles you could collect and deliver to them, your response would have to include some estimate of cost: “I can deliver 4 pickup truck loads at 5 cents a bottle, or 6 pickup loads at 10 cents. (The amount of bottles does not go up linearly, because the cost of scarcity begins to impact supply).

Since our population is growing, and our per capita use is also growing, our demand will continue to grow dramatically. It is in this context that the question of how to conserve our existing supplies must occur.  (For more on this, see our discussion on energy economics under Renewable Energy elsewhere on this website).

One can claim the United States has a lot of unused resources, if  the end user is willing to pay more for them.  However, at the same time, each additional dollar for traditional fuels makes conservation more cost competitive. This is why many advocates for new energy alternatives  and conservation argue for an end to subsidy for their traditional competition.

The bottom line is that the United States is increasingly dependent on energy from outside our borders, which is controlled by folks who don’t like us, who ship it through areas of the world where it can be seized or torpedoed, or otherwise interrupted, and if it makes it here, causes our population to get sick when it is used.  We can do better than our history by implementing widespread conservation, as our examples illustrate.

ABC Television’s 20/20 program did a very good job of summarizing some of these supply side issues (they neglected the public health costs, but otherwise did a nice job) in a show called “Over a Barrel: U.S. Oil Addiction”, first shown in July of 2009.  We are posting the link to their website so you can view it.  Please let us know when the link becomes broken as they refresh their website.   http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=8113439&page=1 

Because of the cost of new supplies of energy, Energy Conservation  for the first 1/3 of existing consumption in almost any form pays a rate of return between 20 and 40% annually.  The technology is here, and proven.  Barriers to widespread adoption are often institutional.  You will find examples of how to repair that in our main menu.

For a more expansive explanation of kinds, quantities and uses of energy produced and consumed please see WikiPedia.


[1] http://worldpopulationbalance.org/pop/energy/

[2] How the U. S. can Ensure Energy Supply for the Future, John Hofmeister, April 25, 2007.  Mr. Hofmeister is President of Shell Oil Company.

[3] ^ US Dept. of Energy, "Annual Energy Report" (July 2006), Energy Flow diagram

[4] http://www.hybridcars.com/news/real-cost-gallon-gas-835.html

[5] http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=631&pageid=21&pagename=Energy

[6] http://www.islandpress.com/bookstore/details.php?prod_id=1669