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 one-fifth 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?

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.

This trend is expected to continue. The EIA projects that by 2030 Americans will be using only slightly more energy per capita than they did in 1980—but less than half as much per dollar of GDP.

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.

Energy use per capita and per dollar of GDP from 1980 to 2030.

Energy use per capita and per dollar of GDP from 1980 to 2030.

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