The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Energy

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Energy

Sustainability

Our appetite for energy appears boundless but traditional supplies are not. We are depleting the planet’s finite stores of fossil fuels many times faster than they are formed, a situation that cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually we must devise ways to keep resources and consumption in sustainable equilibrium. Addressing the issue of sustainable resources in a nation that gets almost 85% of its total energy from oil, coal, and natural gas is a formidable goal, but one that we must pursue vigorously.

Addressing the issue of sustainable resources in a nation that gets almost 85% of its total energy from oil, coal, and gas is a formidable goal, but one that we must pursue vigorously.

At present, oil accounts for 37% of total energy consumption in the United States. Coal provides 23% and natural gas provides 24% of our energy. Another 9% comes from nuclear power plants. Renewable energy sources round out the roster, accounting for 7% of consumption—mostly as the result of hydropower investments made in the last century and the use of biomass (organic matter such as wood, municipal waste, and agricultural crops) for energy production.

Those sources and their proportions will have to change eventually, since the planet’s known supplies of fossil fuels are limited. In the meantime, three developments are virtually certain. First, fossil fuels will be a major part of our nation’s energy portfolio for decades to come because no single technology will provide all of tomorrow’s energy and because it takes time and money to change the distribution and consumption patterns of large populations. Second, invention and development of more cost-effective, low-carbon energy sources will become progressively more urgent. And third, bringing those new technologies to market in convenient and affordable forms will pose a challenge even more daunting than the research itself.

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Energy Hands-on

What do you know about energy?

True or False: Burning biofuels does not release carbon dioxide.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    Biofuels contain carbon and although they may burn “cleaner” than oil-derived fuels, they do not avoid generating carbon dioxide emissions.

  • Correct!

    Biofuels contain carbon and although they may burn “cleaner” than oil-derived fuels, they do not avoid generating carbon dioxide emissions.

Energy Defined

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE)

Federal standards that stipulate a target average fuel economy rating (typically expressed in miles per gallon, or mpg) to be met by passenger vehicles by a certain date. The most recent version of the CAFE law, pending passage by Congress, requires new cars, SUVs, and light trucks to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

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National Academies Press

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