The National Academies: Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine
What you need to know about energy...

What you need to
know about energy...

American society, with a standard of living unprecedented in human history, can attribute a large measure of its success to increasingly sophisticated uses of energy. The strength of industry, the speed of transportation, the myriad comforts and conveniences of home and workplace, and the security of the nation all derive from ever more ingenious provision and application of various sources and forms of energy.

But that condition has come at a cost – to irreplaceable resources, to the environment, and to our national independence. Society has begun to question the methods we use to power modern life and to search for better alternatives. As the nationwide debate continues, it is already evident that managing energy use wisely in the 21st century will call for balancing three essential, but quite different, concerns: resources, responsibility, and security.



Our appetite for energy appears boundless, but traditional supplies are not. We are depleting the planet's finite stores of fossil fuels millions of 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 85% of its total energy from oil, coal, and gas is a formidable goal, but one that we must pursue rigorously. 1


The combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (a major “greenhouse” gas) into the atmosphere, and most climate scientists believe that the buildup of those gases is the primary cause of global warming in recent decades. Moreover, many uses of fossil fuels, as well as their extraction from the earth, contribute to air pollution and can cause severe damage to our health and the environment. Responsible stewardship of our planet demands that we find new ways to minimize or eliminate those effects. That goal appears attainable, and considerable progress is already evident.


Our society relies on energy that is available when and where it is needed, is generally affordable at stable prices, and can be counted on in the near future. Yet we are dependent on foreign sources for two-thirds of our petroleum supplies as well as many other resources, and the world is an uncertain place. As a result, access to some critical energy sources is beyond our control. Many planners argue that this situation threatens the economic and military security of the nation and urge policies that maximize the use of domestic resources. This is a difficult objective and will likely require many years to address thoroughly.

Meeting all three of these energy concerns will be a long-term process with unknown outcomes. Fortunately, both public and private organizations continue to support substantial energy research. There is also growing technical and financial interest in renewable and sustainable sources – such as advanced nuclear power, wind power, solar power, and certain biofuels – and in technologies that minimize carbon dioxide emissions and capture the gases in storage areas where they cannot reach the atmosphere.

Such efforts are especially consequential as worldwide consumption trends put increasing pressure on traditional energy sources. In the United States alone, energy consumption is projected to rise 20% above present levels over the next two decades. Worldwide demand is forecast to nearly double by 20302. Much of that growth will be in developing nations – most notably China and India, which between them contain more than one-third of the planet's people – creating unprecedented competition for limited conventional resources.

Whatever happens, three developments are certain. First, fossil fuels will be a major part of the world'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.

Meanwhile, as national and international debate on energy grows more intense, Americans increasingly need dependable, objective, and authoritative energy information. We hope this booklet is a step in that direction. In its role as adviser on science and technology policy matters to the federal government, the National Research Council has conducted numerous studies on the topic of energy. Additional studies are in process. The information in this booklet draws on that body of material and on other sources in order to offer a basic toolkit of facts and concepts to use in assessing various energy claims and proposals. (See a complete list of the Research Council's relevant reports in References and Credits.)

This overview begins with a description of the status of energy in 21st-century America, including the main sources of energy used in the United States and a survey of the nation's energy demand versus the world's available supply. Then it looks ahead to the quest for greater energy efficiency and emerging technologies. Along the way it addresses how social concerns influence our choice of energy options and how those options affect our everyday lives. The goal of this booklet is to present an accurate picture of America's current and projected energy needs and to describe options that are likely to play a significant role in our energy future. No one can afford to remain uninformed about the energy future because we all have a stake in its outcome.

Next: Sources and Uses →


Introduction | Sources and Uses | Supply and Demand | Improving Efficiency | Emerging Technologies | Looking Ahead | References and Credits

© 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.