The US only makes up 5% of the global population, but it accounts for 17% of the world’s energy consumption.
In 2018 alone, the US consumed a whopping 101 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy. That’s the highest-ever recorded level of consumption since 1949.
The question now is, how and where exactly does the US get the energy it utilizes? What types of energy sources are most common in the nation? Which ones are you even using at home or in the office?
We’ll answer all these questions below, so be sure to keep reading!
In the US, the sources of energy are either primary or secondary.
Primary energy sources are those that we can use in their natural form, such as fossil fuels. The sun, the heat produced by the earth, and the water formations are also primary sources of energy.
Primary energy is then further classified into either renewable or nonrenewable. The basis for this category is whether the source is depletable or unlimited.
For example, fossil fuels are depletable, so they fall under nonrenewable. The sun’s energy, which produces solar power, is not depletable, so it’s a renewable type of energy. Hydro and wind energy sources are also renewable.
Secondary sources of energy are the byproducts of primary energy sources. Primary sources undergo processing and treatment to transform them into secondary sources.
The most common secondary energy source in the US (and most of the world) is electric energy. The US alone consumed 3,971 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018. That’s equivalent to 3.971 trillion kilowatt-hours.
Biofuel is also a secondary source since it’s a derivative of biomass. Biomass is any material or waste that comes from algae, plants, and animals. Like solar power, biofuels are also a form of renewable energy.
Fossil fuels are the primary sources of energy on earth, providing 80% of the world’s energy. It’s pretty much the same in the US — a staggering 80% of the nation’s energy use in 2018 came from fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are the “burnable” types of energy sources. These come from the decomposing matter of plants and many other organisms. They’re buried deep under the earth, slowly acquiring carbon to become fossil fuels.
These carbon-rich deposits have taken millions of years to become fossil fuels. In fact, some of them have formed for as long as 650 million years.
It’s thanks to these fossil fuels that homes and buildings get electricity and heat. These “combustibles” also power vehicles, providing humans a means of transportation. They also feed the many processes that allow manufactures to create a wide array of products.
In 2018, the US consumed 37 quadrillion Btu of petroleum, which is about 20.5 million barrels of petrol a day. 69% of that went towards powering the country’s vehicles. Only 1% went towards generating electric power.
Of all fossil fuels, natural gas takes the lead when it comes to generating electricity. In 2019, 38.4% of the electricity produced in the US came from this source of energy. This is why electricity rates vary the most when there’s a high demand or low supply of natural gas.
Coal is the second-leading source of electric power in the US. As the EIA reported, it accounted for 23.5% of the electricity generated in 2019.
In the US, almost 20% of all electricity generated comes from clean nuclear energy. All that power from a source that the naked eye can’t see: atoms and their nucleus.
Atoms, the microscopic units that make up all types of matter in the universe, produce energy. In particular, this energy comes from its core, called the nucleus. Inside the nucleus is a massive amount of energy rightly known as the strong force.
However, to derive energy from the nucleus, atoms must first release their core. To do this, nuclear reactors (AKA power plants) need to split the atoms via nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting atoms to release all that energy they store.
Power plants use uranium for their nuclear fission process. The nuclear reactors force uranium atoms to split, thereby creating fission products. Fission products are tiny particles that make other uranium atoms break apart.
From here, a cycle or chain reaction starts in order to split all available uranium atoms. This process then releases energy, which in turn, generates heat. This heat interacts with the cooling agent inside nuclear reactors to produce steam.
The massive amount of steam is powerful enough to turn turbines in the plant. As those turbines turn, they power up the generators that produce electricity.
Amazing, right? That’s not all though.
Nuclear power plants themselves do not generate direct carbon dioxide emissions. This is because they run on uranium and not fossil fuels.
However, generating nuclear energy does involve the use of huge amounts of energy. This energy sustains and feeds the process of mining and refining the uranium ore.
Renewable energy, a form of inexhaustible energy, comes from natural processes. These processes are continuous, so the energy they generate is also limitless. Wind, water, biomass, solar, and geothermal are the primary renewable sources of power in the US.
According to the EIA, 17.5% of electricity generated in 2019 came from renewable sources. Together, they produced 720 billion kWh of electricity that year.
Wind energy, also known as wind power, is energy generated through the force of wind or air. Wind turbines capture the wind’s kinetic energy, which they use to rotate their blades. These blades connect to a rotor, which in turn, attaches to the turbine’s main shaft.
As wind passes by a turbine, the blades’ movements trigger the main shaft to spin the generator. The generator then uses all those rotations to create electricity.
In a typical year, turbines can make usable electricity more than 90% of the time. The times that they can’t — or don’t — produce electricity is most often during extreme weather. That’s because wind power plants need to turn off the turbines when the winds are too strong.
Hydropower (hydroelectricity) is the second-leading source of renewable energy in the US. This is the energy generated by the power of flowing water. So long as waters continue to flow, then they will continue to produce enough power to create energy.
Like wind energy, hydropower also uses turbines and generators to produce electricity. The main difference is that it’s the flow of water, rather than wind, that spins the turbine’s rotors.
Streams, rivers, falls, and other water sources with moving water can generate hydropower.
Biomass energy comes from organic materials, mostly waste. Most are all-natural, such as grass clippings and wood pellets. Others are from waste materials, like animal dung.
Combustion is the most common way to make biomass generate electricity. For instance, biomass facilities burn wood materials and agricultural waste. The flames they create then heat up water from which steam rises and spins turbines.
Biomass also undergoes “treatments” to produce energy-producing products like biodiesel. Biodiesel is a mix of recycled grease and used vegetable oil or animal fats. Its primary use is to replace standard diesel in vehicles.
Bioethanol is another secondary source of power made from biomass. Also used in vehicles, it’s an alcohol-based fuel made through plant fermentation.
When the sun’s out, it sends about 430 quintillion Joules of energy to the earth. The light and heat energy that we get directly from the sun is the pure form of solar energy. However, we can still harness the sun’s energy to convert into and use as electric or thermal energy.
In the US, there are over 2 million solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. These PV cells (which make up panels) convert sunlight into electricity.
Solar thermal energy is another way to harness the sun’s power. In this case, solar thermal panels collect and capture the heat of the sun. The collectors in the panels then heat up a transfer fluid, a combination of water and glycol.
The heated fluid then goes into a heat exchanger, which is usually in a hot water tank. The heat exchanger then heats up the water inside the tank, making it available for use. In some cases, the heated water can also power boilers used for home heating.
Geothermal energy is the energy that comes from fluids and rocks within the Earth itself. Geysers and hot springs are among the most common fluid sources of geothermal energy. Rocks heated by magma and magma itself (hot molten rock) also provide geothermal power.
Granted, geothermal energy generates the least amount of renewable energy in the US. However, the nation was still able to consume 218 trillion Btu of geothermal power in 2018.
There you have it, your ultimate guide on the major types of energy sources in the US and throughout the world. As you can see, fossil fuels remain the standard and leading source of power. However, they’re exhaustible, which is why more people are turning to solar energy.
That said, you should also consider adding solar power to your home or business. This way, you can make your own electricity and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels.
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