Getting More for Less
Given the anticipated growth in every U.S. economic sector and in demand for all energy sources, it’s natural to wonder how that growth can possibly be sustained. After all, America, with only 5% of the planet’s population, already consumes 20% of the world’s total energy. And other countries are poised to experience increases in energy use as they become more industrialized and improve their standard of living. Can the United States actually meet its growing needs?
The demand for energy has not been growing as rapidly as the economy, resulting in a significant drop in what is called energy intensity.
It remains to be seen. Yet one important factor is working in our nation’s favor. The demand for energy has not been growing as rapidly as the economy, resulting in a significant drop in what is called energy intensity. At present, Americans use about half as much energy per dollar of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—the total market value of all the goods and services produced in a country during one year—as they did in 1970. Were it not for this development, the U.S. energy bill would be hundreds of billions of dollars per year higher. Energy-efficiency investments and structural shifts in the economy away from energy-intensive industry and toward service and information-based jobs have both contributed to the phenomenon. So have engineering improvements in scores of systems, from automobile engines to building insulation to electric power-generating facilities.
Continuing this downward trend in energy intensity depends in part on the nation taking advantage of numerous opportunities for efficiency advances in current technology. Fortunately, recent history provides ample evidence that efficiency research and education can pay enormous dividends. The use of electricity is a dramatic example. During the 1970s, total U.S. electrical consumption increased 4.2% per year. In the 1980s, it grew only 2.6% annually, dropping to 2.3% in the 1990s. Current projections are 1% per year. That trend is partly a result of ongoing improvements in efficiency.
Similar progress is visible in nearly every sector of the economy as a result of independent technological breakthroughs, directed research, government mandates and incentives, consumer education, or a combination of these elements.