There’s a tendency to think of power and energy as the same thing. They are not. Power is the rate energy is moved, or used. Energy is the ability to cause change.
Generally, power and energy are thought of in terms of the utility industry, which brings electricity to homes and businesses. And no wonder. Consumer culture is spreading from affluent countries in North America, Europe and Asia to developing nations around the world, bringing with it the voracious appetite for goods, services and energy.
Still, Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet consume 26 percent of the world’s energy. Together, the United States and Canada account for 50 percent of energy consumed by the world’s richest industrialized countries; Europe, 33 percent.
As of 2018, natural gas was the largest source of energy (35%) for electricity generation. Natural gas is used in used in steam turbines and gas turbines to generate electricity.
The use of coal is dropping rapidly, but it still ranks as the second-largest energy source for U.S. electricity generation at about 27%. Nearly all coal-fired power plants use steam turbines. A few coal-fired power plants convert coal to a gas for use in a gas turbine to generate electricity.
Nuclear energy provides one-fifth of U.S. electricity. Nuclear power plants use steam turbines to produce electricity from nuclear fission.
But clearly, the future is trending toward renewable energy, which currently provides 20% of U.S. electricity. An Electricity Futures Study found that by 2050 an 80% of renewables future is feasible with currently available technologies, including wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, biopower, geothermal and hydropower.
The study also demonstrates that a high renewables scenario can meet electricity demand across the country every hour of every day, year-round.
Variable resources such as wind and solar power can provide up to about half of U.S. electricity, with the remaining 30 percent from other renewable sources.
The Energy Shift
The energy industry as a whole is shifting to respond to the changing landscape of energy production. Although the largest businesses in the sector are notoriously slow to innovate and adapt, meaningful changes are happening. The cost of fossil fuels is rising as the cost of renewables falls, which means that looking to renewable energy sources is simply good business sense.
Giants of the liquid fuel industry like BP and Shell are already making sizable investments in renewable energy companies as they look to safeguard their status in a future that will be free from their primary product.
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