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?

As an automobile fuel, what amount of hydrogen compares with a gallon of gasoline?

  • Correct!

    A gallon of gasoline contains about the same energy as a kg of hydrogen. Although fuel cells are expected to be twice as efficient as gasoline vehicles, hydrogen is very diffuse and storing an ample supply on board represents an engineering challenge.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    A gallon of gasoline contains about the same energy as 1 kg of hydrogen. Although fuel cells are expected to be twice as efficient as gasoline vehicles, hydrogen is very diffuse and storing an ample supply on board represents an engineering challenge.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    A gallon of gasoline contains about the same energy as 1 kg of hydrogen. Although fuel cells are expected to be twice as efficient as gasoline vehicles, hydrogen is very diffuse and storing an ample supply on board represents an engineering challenge.

Energy Defined

Intermittent Energy Source

An energy source characterized by output that is dependent on the natural variability of the source rather than the requirements of consumers. Solar energy is an example of an intermittent energy source since it is only available when the sun is shining. Wind is also an intermittent energy source.

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National Academies Press

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