Jeff Masters Weather Blog

Myths about fossil fuels and renewable energy are circulating again. Don’t buy them. » Yale Climate Connections

A large and growing fraction of U.S. residents understands that human-caused climate change is a significant problem in need of urgent solutions. But as public alarm increases, misinformation about fossil fuels and renewable energy has also seen an uptick.

For example, some politicians and petroleum producers have said that the Biden administration is addressing climate change by slowing down domestic energy production, characterizing the president’s policies as an attack on American energy.

But the data doesn’t bear that out.

Reality: U.S. gas production is booming

Below is a graph of energy production in the United States since 1997. It includes every major type of energy produced in this country. The data is from the Energy Information Administration, a U.S. agency responsible for gathering and analyzing energy data and sharing it with the public.

Oil and gas extraction has been on the rise since the COVID-induced slowdowns of late 2020 and early 2021. Since then, gas production has set multiple all-time records, and the Energy Information Administration anticipates new oil production records will be set in 2023. The data behind those assessments stands in stark contrast to accusations that the Biden administration is curtailing domestic oil and gas extraction.

That’s just one of myths that can be easily knocked down by looking at energy data. Read on to explore the state of American energy —and to inoculate yourself against some common myths about American energy independence and the contributions of renewable energy.

The graph is interactive. Click on a line to highlight it, and hover over a particular point to bring up a text box with the specifics.

A few highlights:

  • This graph plots all major forms of energy extraction in the same units on a single axis, enabling an easy comparison of the scale of each source of energy. Did you know that fossil gas, commonly called natural gas, is the nation’s largest source of energy production?
  • The major uptick in oil and gas production over the last 10 years is the “shale boom,” driven by advances in drilling and extraction technology that allowed oil and gas to be produced from areas that were previously unprofitable.
  • The sharp dip in oil, gas, and coal in late 2020 was driven by the COVID pandemic, which slowed demand and field production. 
  • COVID uncertainties and supply chain challenges kept oil, gas, and coal production slow through most of 2020. By the end of 2021, fossil gas production had surpassed pre-COVID levels, setting new all-time high records in 2021 and 2022.
  • The overall trend in coal production is sharply down, but coal has rebounded slightly as rising fossil gas prices make coal more economically competitive. Coal is expected to decline again in 2023, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Reality: The U.S. is the strongest energy exporter it has ever been

The shale boom kicked off a large increase in domestic oil and gas production and made the U.S. the world’s leading oil producer. This new flow of American oil reduced the need for imported oil, and in January 2020, the U.S. became a net exporter of oil for the first time. Only two months later, COVID disrupted both production and consumption for 2021. But since April 2022, the U.S. has repeatedly set new all-time records as a net oil exporter. This push was partly a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as oil and gas from the U.S. helped reduce demand for Russian energy exports.

The term ‘energy independence’ has several definitions, but one metric of energy independence is the ability of the U.S. to export more energy than it imports. By this measure, the U.S. is the strongest it has ever been.

Reality: Energy consumption patterns are driven by how and when we use energy.

Energy consumption doesn’t necessarily match energy production – so long as the energy can be stored for later use. Fossil fuels can be stockpiled or exported, and the rate at which the U.S. consumes these fuels is not the same as their production.

This graph also includes non-fossil energy sources – but beware that although renewables may look like minor players compared to fossil fuels, data in the final graph suggests that view is misguided.

  • Energy consumption is strongly seasonal, as is especially evident with fossil gas. The large peak each year occurs in wintertime, when gas does double duty for both heating and electricity generation. 
  • The COVID pandemic affected oil more than it did any other form of energy because oil is primarily a transportation fuel. When people reduced travel, oil consumption plummeted. 
  • Coal is primarily used for electricity generation, and there are two peaks each year, for winter heating and summer cooling. Summertime is the period of largest electricity demand of the year.
  • Nuclear energy is nearly flat over the long term, with seasonal variation to meet larger demand during winter heating and summer cooling.
  • Renewables have peaks and valleys too, but those are driven by supply rather than demand. Hydroelectric output peaks in spring and early summer when rivers are running high. Solar electricity generation is highest in the summer, and wind output is generally highest in the spring.
  • In addition to those seasonal patterns, solar and wind energy are increasing as new wind and solar farms are constructed.
  • The role of renewable energy appears to be minor, when in fact renewable electricity production is roughly equivalent to – and sometimes greater than – electricity produced from coal. 

Reality: Renewables are no longer a minor player.

The graph above doesn’t accurately represent the role of renewables, because burning fossil fuels is an inherently inefficient process. Gasoline-powered vehicles lose around 80% of the energy that goes into them. In fossil-fueled power plants, around 44% to 68% of the energy is vented off as waste heat. Both of these topics are covered in detail in previous articles about the efficiency of cars and efficiency of power plants.

So although large amounts of fossil fuels are extracted and burned, a relatively small fraction of their energy actually ends up doing the work it is intended to do.

By contrast, renewables don’t vent off waste heat. Nearly all of the energy captured from water, wind, and sunshine ends up as useful electricity. Thus, a seemingly small amount of energy generated by renewables can replace a surprisingly large amount of raw fossil fuels.

Consider the example of coal, illustrated below. If one were to compare the amount of coal burned (upper black line) with the amount of renewable energy generated (green line), it may appear that renewables have a long way to go before they can replace coal.

But an astonishing 68% of the energy in coal is lost in converting it to electricity. The lower black line shows the amount of electricity that actually comes out of power plants. The orange shaded area illustrates the lost heat.

Bottom line: When you compare the amount of electricity generated, rather than the amount of raw fuel, it becomes clear that renewables are already producing about as much electricity as coal.

View the interactive graph.

Fossil gas is around 44% efficient, so “only” 56% of the energy in gas is lost in conversion to electricity. That’s better than coal, but still very inefficient. As renewables offset fossil-fueled electricity, they are replacing large amounts of inefficient energy production with a more efficient process that consumes less energy overall. This is partly why renewables tend to be cheaper than extraction-based sources of electricity.

It takes a careful eye to spot these nuances, but in the end, a data-driven approach not only sets the record straight, but it also offers some valuable lessons along the way.

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