How We'll Power The U.S. In 2035

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The current energy landscape is rife with contradictions: Gas prices are shooting up, renewables are being implemented at a seemingly rapid pace, natural gas is being simultaneously demonized and hailed as an energy savior, and electric cars are finally starting to roll off production lines. Fortunately, your tax dollars fund a government agency devoted to making sense of energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration explains the gritty details of our energy future in its Annual Energy Outlook 2011, which has tracked our projected energy use all the way to 2035. Don't have the time to slog through its myriad charts and tables? We do. Read on for our abbreviated look at the report's most important findings.

Energy Imports

In the future, we will rely less and less on oil giants like Saudi Arabia to feed our oil addiction. The EIA assumes that oil prices balloon to $135 per barrel and the real GDP grows 2.7% annually through 2035. In that case, energy imports will drop to 17% of total use in 2035 from 25% in 2009. This is thanks to increased biofuel use, headache-inducing prices at the pump (making people drive less), and better vehicle fuel-economy standards. We will still use more fossil fuels overall than we do today, but a larger portion of it will come from increased domestic production of natural gas.

Shale Gas

Pretty much anyone concerned about climate change or water contamination doesn't think natural gas fracked from shale is a reasonable solution. But hey, our massive appetite for energy has to be satiated somehow, and bad consequences have never stopped us before. According to the EIA, shale gas production will grow nearly fourfold from 2009 to 2035 to 12.2 trillion cubic feet.

Coal

Another blow to clean energy advocates: energy generation from coal will increase by 25% from 2009 to 2035, mostly because of increased use of existing capacity. Reading between the lines, that means the EIA doesn't expect much in the way of new clean coal plants--not that we expected much from clean coal, either. But get this: if energy companies and regulators decide that they aren't concerned about greenhouse gas regulations (like those from the EPA), 48 gigawatts of new generating capacity for coal-fired plants could be built by 2035, compared to the 26 gigawatts projected in the regular scenario. That's a lot of coal.

Renewable Energy

Finally, some good news. Renewable energy is projected to grow from 8% of total energy use in 2009 to 13% in 2035. Wind power will almost double its share of total current generation, and geothermal resources will triple in generation capacity. Solar resources will account for 5% of all nonhydroelectric renewable energy generation, up from 2% in 2009. Still, this projection sort of puts a damper on all those "we could power the world with renewables" fantasies. Time to find that perpetual motion machine.

Carbon Emissions

CO2 emissions are expected to grow slowly through 2035 because of minor economic growth, more reliance on renewable energy, efficiency improvements, slow growth in electricity demand (because of the recession), and increased natural gas use (though a recent study claims that natural gas is more carbon-intensive than coal). Assuming all of these factors play out exactly as the EIA's projection indicates, CO2 emissions will increase from 5,996 million metric tons in 2005 to 6,311 million metric tons in 2035.

It's entirely possible that the scenarios described above never come to pass; renewable energy may account for so much of our energy use that treehuggers everywhere weep with joy, or coal could end up even more dominant than it already is. The EIA actually has 57 different scenarios--this is just the the scenario where current laws and regulations remain unchanged. Since we've been on this path forever, the idea we'll suddenly deviate from it makes those other scenarios seem unlikely at best, but if you want, you can play with different options here.

[Photo by Buzz Hoffman]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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