With the initial release of federal energy data for 2014, we can see a year of gradual progress. Total U.S. energy use rose slightly, but without signs of resuming the long-term growth that appears to have peaked around 2005. The sharp drop in coal burning and sharp rise in gas burning during 2012 evened out. Coal use remained in long-term decline, an average reduction of 3.4 percent per year between 2008 and 2014. Natural gas use remained in long-term growth, an average increase of 4.5 percent per year over the same span of years. Renewable energy production remained stable, a plateau that began during 2011.
Net U.S. energy imports continued to fall rapidly, reaching the lowest levels since the mid-1990s, mainly because new domestic oil and gas from shale formations continued to displace imports. If the trend since 2005 were to continue, The United States would become energy-sufficient during 2018. However, averaged over the year, U.S. retail gasoline prices remained at inflation-adjusted highs, near peaks of the early 1980s–leading to rapid price declines in the last few months of the year as reactions to excess production.
Electricity generation: In recent years, electricity generation has become a dynamic U.S. energy sector with changes in energy sources, including the growth of renewables. Although promises during the late 1990s of nuclear power at much lower cost proved wildly optimistic, nuclear power remained a stable subsector. Capacity lost from five U.S. plant closures announced during 2014 will be replaced by four new plants to open during 2017 through 2019. The third-generation AP-1000 reactor design from Westinghouse and Toshiba is becoming a world standard. All four U.S. and all four Chinese third-generation nuclear units now under construction use that design.
The major trends since 2005 have continued through 2014: replacement of coal-fired electricity with natural gas-fired electricity and electricity from renewable sources. Among the latter, federal agencies track wind, solar, biomass and geothermal. They count burning municipal waste for energy among many “other” sources of electricity generation.
Nuclear power, hydropower and petroleum-fired power remained fairly stable at about 19, 6 and 1 percent of generation, respectively. Between 2004 and 2014, natural gas-fired power grew from 18 to 27 percent of U.S. electricity, and all that EIA counts as renewable generation combined grew from 2 to 7 percent.
New England has often been ahead of most of the U.S. in adopting new energy sources for electricity. Recently, however, New England has been falling in electricity generation using natural gas and resorting to electricity imports from Canada and New York instead of generating its own power.
Renewable generation: Compared with the rest of the U.S., New England developed a peculiar approach to renewable generation. A majority of U.S. renewable generation, about 7 percent of the electricity supply, now comes from wind turbines, and most of the rest comes from solar. According to EIA, New England got only 1.6 percent of its 2014 electricity generation from wind and 0.4 percent from solar. It outperformed the U.S. in renewable generation by burning wood and municipal waste.
The big wood-fired New England power plants are in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The big municipal waste plants are in Massachusetts and Connecticut. For 2014, EIA reported, Maine produced 27 percent of its electricity generation through burning wood. Massachusetts produced 3 percent of its larger electricity generation through burning municipal waste. Those plants released much larger than average amounts of air pollution for the amounts of electricity they generated, and they are probably not what most people identify with “renewable energy.”
Natural gas in New England: Over the last 20 years, New England has replaced nearly all its coal-fired generation capacity with high-efficiency, combined-cycle natural gas-fired plants. Natural gas use for electricity generation has been crimped since 2013 by pipeline transmission limits. The new, low-pollution plants have often been idled for lack of gas supplies.
Only two major domestic gas transmission pipelines–the 1949 Algonquin and the 1992 Iroquois–cross the Hudson River. Lack of transmission pipeline capacity has cut off New England from plentiful, low-cost domestic gas supplies. During 2014, about 2 GW of New England’s gas-fired generating capacity was outfitted to burn fuel oil, even though oil costs more and pollutes more than gas.
– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, March 10, 2015
Monthly Energy Review, U.S. Energy Information Agency, February, 2015 (18 MB)
Electric Power Monthly, U.S. Energy Information Agency, February, 2015 (7 MB)
Board of Selectmen: bumper year for solar electricity, Brookline Beacon, January 22, 2015
Craig Bolon, New pipeline across Massachusetts: gas produces hot air, Brookline Beacon, July 11, 2014
Climate Action Committee: “green” schools and solar energy, Brookline Beacon, May 20, 2014