Hard to believe it, but we're now at the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. The question is: Are we doing better today than on the first Earth Day 45 years ago? This is particularly important as, according to The Hill, the House begins working on an energy bill this week. The Senate is busy as well, holding hearings next week on the administration's Quadrennial Energy Review and several proposed energy efficiency bills.

When Earth Day is discussed, speeches and articles often focus on pollution and natural resources without recognizing that producing and using energy is a major source leading to that impact. For example, the president has focused his remarks this week on the impact of climate change on national parks like the Everglades and the economic activity associated with these special landscapes. Behind that impact, however, is the daily production and use of energy that provides the essential elements of our lifestyle.

This month, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the primary source of reliable statistical information on energy activities in the United States, released its Annual Energy Outlook 2015 providing both the current state of affairs as well as projections into the future. Predicting the future is challenging and depends on technical innovation, economic growth and other actions, but this annual snapshot provides a good overview of how we are doing. So, based on this report, how are we doing?

First, the good news:

  • Improvement in energy efficiency, due to adoption of energy-efficient technologies and policies, has led to declines in energy consumption in the residential and transportation sectors.
  • Increases in electricity demand, due to federal tax credits and state renewable energy portfolio standards, are largely able to be met by increases in renewable energy production.
  • There has been a stabilization of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions due to a combination of increases in energy efficiency and decreases in carbon-related emissions from electricity generation due to increases in the use of both renewable energy and natural gas.

Overall, as shown in the figure below, this leads to a reduction in "energy intensity" — how much energy is used by each person and per dollar of gross domestic product in the United States — as well as in a reduction in the related emissions from that energy intensity. Looking toward 2040, the EIA expects energy consumption for space heating, lighting and computers to substantially decline, as well our use of gasoline for transportation, while our use of renewable energy and natural gas will increase, leading to a decline in carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product) of 2.3 percent per year from 2013 to 2040. In addition, for those concerned about energy security, the EIA expects that, due to increased oil and dry natural gas production, the United States will end its importation of energy.

Image: Energy Information Administration

Does this mean that enough progress is being made that no further action is necessary? No. From an emissions standpoint, here are the challenges we still face:

  • As natural gas prices increase, so will the use of coal to generate electricity. The EIA expects the use of coal to be 2 to 4 percent higher beginning in 2019. This increases our need to consider technologies that reduce the carbon dioxide emitted from the use of coal, such as the coal capture technology now used in a coal-powered plant and other partnership activities in Canada.
  • Although renewable energy use for electricity is increasing dramatically, because the original base of renewable energy is low, it is still only a small contributor to electricity generation. The EIA projects that it will be 18 percent in 2040, up from 13 percent in 2013. Of that 13 percent, wind is only 4 percent and solar is less than 1 percent of the electricity we used. There is promise, however. In Texas, wind generated more than 10 percent of electricity in 2014 and in California, utility-scale solar generated more than 5 percent in 2014. There is sufficient interest in the potential of new energy storage technologies to leapfrog the contribution of renewables by storing energy when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine, which has led to a $5 billion investment "race" for these technologies estimated to be a $50 billion market.
  • Although nuclear energy does not produce carbon dioxide emissions, its use is expected to decline from 19 percent in 2013 as nuclear plants close or retire. One technological option is small modular nuclear reactors, small reactors that operate underground. However, this technology faces economic and other regulatory challenges in the United States, though not perhaps in other countries.

So, are we doing better today than on the first Earth Day 45 years ago? Yes. Might it take another 45 years to achieve our Earth Day goals related to energy? The answer to that question is "yes," as well.

Interested in knowing more about energy issues? This contribution to The Hill was based on the first episode of a new 90-second radio program called "Energy Bite." This program, answering the public's questions about energy technology related issues from Carnegie Mellon University's Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh's National Public Radio station, is available at no cost nationally via the Public Radio Exchange. At the program's website, you can hear the answer to the question addressed in this contribution from Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon, one of the nation's leading scholars on energy technology and policy. And you can answer the program's poll question: How much more would you be willing to pay to have all your electricity made without releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere? What is your answer? No more than you're paying now? Or $1 per month, $5 per month, $20 per month or $100 per month? It's certainly an issue facing today's society — locally, nationally and globally.

Stine is associate director for policy outreach at the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and professor of the Practice, Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.