Energy From Renewable Sources Triples Forty-five Years After 1973 Arab Oil Embargo

Forty-five years ago, on Oct. 17, 1973, Arab oil producers cut production by 5 percent and instituted an oil embargo against Israel’s allies, including the U.S. Production cuts deepened in the ensuing weeks. By year’s end, production had been cut to 25 percent of September levels. The embargo lasted until March 1974. The experience prompted then-President Richard Nixon to call for a national effort to secure energy independence and thereby launch a decades-long quest to refashion the nation’s energy policies and energy consumption.

An analysis by the SUN DAY Campaign of both historic and recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests that while progress has been made on some fronts, in other ways America’s energy situation may have actually worsened over the past 45 years.

On the plus side, renewable energy sources (biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) have nearly tripled the amount of energy, as measured in quadrillion Btu’s (quads), they contribute to the total energy mix. In particular, since 1973, wind, solar, and biofuels have emerged from being essentially non-existent to become significant players in the energy market today,;while biomass and geothermal both showed strong growth.

Also encouraging is that the share of U.S. energy provided by fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) has dropped from over 92 percent in 1973 to just under 80 percent today. Moreover, the amount of energy, again measured in quads, coming from coal in 2018 is almost the same as in 1973 notwithstanding a much larger economy. In addition, numerous analyses show that the energy intensity of the U.S. economy has improved by at least 50 percent since the embargo.

However, those gains have been offset, at least in part, by an increase of over 40 percent in total domestic energy consumption, including a 25 percent increase in the use of fossil fuels. As a consequence, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel use are 10.5 percent higher in 2018 than in 1973 due to natural gas whose emission levels are 40 percent greater than 45 years ago.

In addition, the share of nuclear power in the nation’s energy mix has grown from about 1.5 percent in 1973 to over 8 percent today; along with its attendant safety, proliferation, and radioactive waste concerns.

Renewable Energy

In 1973, renewable energy consisted of just hydropower (2.89 quads) and wood (1.46 quads) plus a trace of geothermal (0.02 quads). Combined, they accounted for 6.2 percent of the U.S. energy mix. By 2018, renewable energy consumption had nearly tripled (an increase of 271 percent) and provided 11.8 percent of the nation’s energy use.

In the 45 years since the embargo, energy from hydropower has remained almost unchanged and its share of total energy use actually declined from over 4 percent to about 3 percent today. While wood expanded by almost half from 1.46 quads to 2.17 quads, its share of the total has grown from 2.1 percent to 2.2 percent.

The growth by renewables is primarily attributable to wind, biofuels, solar, and biomass waste. Combined, they played essentially no role in the nation’s energy mix in 1973. By 2018, wind was contributing 2.82 quads, biofuels 2.23 quads, solar 0.95 quads, and waste 0.49 quads. Combined, solar and wind alone now account for almost 4 percent (3.7 percent) of the nation’s energy use and almost 10 percent of its electrical generation. In addition, over the past 45 years, geothermal has increased by 10-fold to 0.21 quads but still remains a small component (0.2 percent) of the total energy mix.

Fossil Fuels

In 1973, fossil fuels provided almost 64.5 quads of energy (oil – 31.13 quads, gas – 20.87 quads, coal – 12.46 quads) which accounted for 92.1 percent of total U.S. energy use. By 2018, their combined total had grown by a quarter to 80.5 quads but their share of the nation’s energy mix was down to 79.8 percent.

Coal use in 2018 (12.54 quads) was barely higher than its consumption in 1973 (12.46 quads) and substantially lower than the 22.80 quads used at its high point in 2005. Oil use today (36.51 quads) is 17.3 percent higher than the 1973 level (31.13 quads) but, again, still lower than its all-time high (40.3 quads) also recorded in 2005. However, natural gas is on track to set a record in 2018 (31.44 quads); a level more than 50 percent higher than the amount used in 1973 (20.87 quads).

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

CO2 emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels are 10.5 percent higher in 2018 than in 1973. The increase is due to expanded use of natural gas whose CO2 emissions are 40.5 percent higher today than they were 45 years ago. Notwithstanding higher levels recorded in 2005, by 2018 CO2 emissions from oil were only 0.9 percent higher than in 1973 while those from coal were actually 1.2 percent below their 1973 level.

Nuclear Power

Use of nuclear power increased nearly eight-fold from roughly 1.07 quads in 1973 to 8.42 quads today, expanding its share of the nation’s energy mix from 1.5 percent to 8.4 percent.

Total Energy Use

Energy use from all sources totaled 69.9 quads in 1973 and is on track to hit 100.9 quads in 2018, an increase of 44.3 percent. That would roughly match the all-time record of 101 quads set in 2007. Multiple analyses, though, note that the U.S. economy has grown at a faster rate over the past 45 years than its increase in energy consumption with the result that energy intensity today has declined. In fact, without the energy efficiency improvements made since 1973, the U.S. would require about 50 percent more energy to deliver the current GDP.

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