If someone would have told me 10 years ago that the big energy story in 2012 would be a prediction that the U.S. would soon out-produce Saudi Arabia in fossil fuels and that energy imports in general would be plummeting, I would have never believed it.
Yet in one of the least-predicable turn of events, that is exactly where we find ourselves as the 12th year of the new millennium draws to a close. But thats not the only strange turn of events that has transpired in the past decade. Id like to take this opportunity to review a few others.
As one might expect, the government tracks energy use throughout the nation at a very high level of granularity. For those with the patience to sort out the idiosyncrasies of the data, theres a treasure trove of information and more than a few surprises at the Energy Information Administrations web site (eia.gov). For example, net imports of energy into the United States continue to fall. Theyre on track to be less than 10 percent of our energy needs in a few years. Thats compared to 30 percent in 2005.
While increased domestic gas and oil production has contributed to this, its important to realize that weve gotten a lot more efficient in our energy use. One measure of efficiency is the energy intensity of the economy measured in BTU/dollar of gross domestic product (GDP, inflation adjusted). In 2011, that number was 7.32, down nearly 14 percent from 10 years ago and nearly half what it was in 1973. This is one of the most important stories of the decade, not just about U.S. energy, but about society in general. Through natural competitive pressures, we continually get better at using our energy resources, and thats a very good thing.
Another positive development is the utilization of renewable energy sources to power our economy. In the past 10 years, the proportion of energy use in the U.S. from renewable energy sources rose from 5.3 percent to 9.1 percent. The story behind the story is that nearly all the renewable energy 10 years ago was hydroelectric and nearly all the additions have been wind. Thats a spectacular build-out of the wind-energy sector and that has not only contributed to fewer energy imports, but also created jobs and revenue basis for state and local governments across the country.
Speaking of rapid growth, a colleague was mentioning the other day that he thought the build-out of wind energy in Idaho was truly amazing. While its true that all of the 675 MW of current installed capacity came in the past 10 years, its important to put that in perspective. Relative to the potential developable resource in the state (as estimated in a 1991 landmark PNNL study), our current capacity represents less than 5 percent of what can be reasonably developed given land use and resource restrictions. Compare that with our next door neighbors in Washington and Oregon, which have developed nearly 20 percent of their potential.
That said, I wrote last year that 2012 would probably see an end to large-scale wind development in Idaho, at least for the time being. That prediction, alas, turned out to be true. Between the difficulties the utilities have integrating these variable generators into our grid (and the resulting rulings from the Idaho Public Utilities Commission) and the uncertain future of federal subsidies, the total installed capacity of wind in Idaho will top out just over 700 MW.
As for the next 10 years, I see a bright spot, literally, on the horizon for renewable energy in Idaho. If Idaho is a relatively good place for wind energy, its an excellent place for solar. While its true that the southeastern deserts of the U.S. get more sun than we do, the milder temperatures we experience make the panels more efficient. On those cold crisp-clear days so common in the eastern part of our state, a solar array can actually produce 20 percent more than capacity. And, unlike wind, solar is available when demand for electricity is the highest. I only hope that opponents of renewable energy dont take their successes in halting wind energy development and attempt to block this important opportunity for the state. Who knows where we can be in 10 years?
John Gardner is a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Boise State University and director of the CAES Energy Efficiency Research Institute.