Expert Commentary

Congressional Research Service: Electrical generation and consumption in the U.S.

Electricity-related data from the 2012 Congressional Research Service report, "U.S. Energy: Overview and Key Statistics."

According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Energy: Overview and Key Statistics,” energy consumption in the U.S. nearly tripled from 1950 to 2011. Over the same period, however, electricity consumption grew even faster, rising from 334 billion to 4,120 billion kilowatt hours — an increase of 1,134%.

The report brings together a wide range of governmental statistics on electricity production and consumption. Sources include the “March 2012: Monthly Energy Review,” from the Department of Energy, and “Annual Energy Review, 2010,” from the Energy Information Administration.

The findings cover both electrical generation as well as consumption, with breakdowns of for industrial and consumer use.

  • In 2010, total U.S. electrical generation was 4,120 billion kilowatt hours. The primary sources were fossil fuels, which generated 2,881 billion kilowatt hours (70%); nuclear, 807 billion kilowatt hours (20%); and renewables, 425 billion kilowatt hours (10%).
  • The estimated average price of electricity in 2010 was approximately 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour, a 360% increase over the 1960 average of 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Adjusted for inflation, however, the real cost of electricity declined 25% during that time, from approximately 14 cents per kilowatt hour in 1960 to 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour in 2010.
  • Natural gas currently supplies approximately 20% of U.S. energy needs, an increase from 17% in 1950 but a drop from the 30% it provided in 1970. By 2000 16% of total electric generation was gas-fired, rising to 25% by 2011.
  • Coal-fired electrical generation peaked in 2005 at 2,013 billion kilowatt hours; by 2011 it fell to 1,851, a decline of 8%. At the same time, coal’s share of total electrical generation fell from 50% in 2005 to 45% in 2010. Electrical generation consumed less than 20% of coal in 1950, but now constitutes 90% of the more than one billion tons consumed in 2011.
  • Nuclear power reached 20% of the nation’s electrical generation in 1990 and has remained steady since then, a consequence of nuclear power’s high capital costs, construction difficulties and safety concerns. Accidents such as Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have contributed considerable uncertainty on the industry’s future.
  • Hydropower generated 257 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2010, essentially steady since 1970. Because overall electricity generation has increased, hydropower’s share has declined from 30% in 1950 to approximately 10% in 2000. However, it is still by far the most important source of renewable energy, generating 31% of the sector’s production in 2010.
  • From 1990 to 2005, solar energy increased only modestly, from 59 to 63 trillion BTUs. It began to increase significantly in 2006, rising to 98 trillion BTUs by 2009, the equivalent of 13.9% annually. In 2010 the sector generated 126 trillion BTUs, up 29% in a year; for 2011, the total was 168 trillion BTUs, an annual increase of 25%. The vast majority, 140 trillion BTUs, was consumed by the residential sector.
  • Wind generation of electrical power was flat from 1989 to 1997, reaching only 3.3 billion kilowatt hours. From there it began to rise sharply, from 6.7 billion kilowatt hours in 2001 to 14.1 in 2004 and 33.4 in 2007. The total in 2010 is estimated to be 94.6 billion kilowatt hours, 22% of the total for renewables.
  • Wind is the fastest-growing source of electrical generation in the United States. From 1999 to 2002, natural gas added 132 gigawatts of capacity while wind added 2.7, a ratio of 1 to 48. From 2003 to 2010, natural gas added only 93.6 gigawatts of new capacity (a 29% decline over the previous period’s additions), while wind added 33.2 gigawatts (a 1,130% increase), a ratio of 1 to 2.8.
  • In 2010, 25.38 quadrillion BTUs of energy were lost in the conversion of fuels (primarily coal and natural gas) to electricity. This is nearly 70% larger than the energy value of the electricity generated, 14.89 quadrillion BTUs.
  • Energy efficiency efforts have significantly increased since 1992. That year, 7,890 megawatts of energy were saved through higher-efficiency appliances, lighting, heating, ventilating and more. By 2009, savings had risen to 19,766 megawatts.

Related resource: The Energy Information Administration’s “Annual Energy Outlook 2011,” projects energy trends out to 2035.

Keywords: fossil fuels, coal, nuclear power, renewable energy, consumer affairs

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