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A New Outlook on Energy

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is out this morning with a sneak preview of its forecast for U.S. energy use through 2035. (The Annual Energy Outlook 2010.) There's a fair amount of (relative) good news in the forecast, but also some troubling observations.

First, the good news: the recent surge of clean energy policies at the local, state and federal levels is projected to make a major dent in the nation's reliance on fossil fuels and our emissions of carbon dioxide. Renewable energy is projected to be responsible for 37 percent of all the new electric generating capacity added to the grid between now and 2035, second only to natural gas. Energy efficiency improvements, driven largely by aggressive public policy, will slice energy consumption by 15 percent compared with business-as-usual by 2035.

The world of 2035 as seen by the EIA is one in which cars average 40 miles per gallon, hybrid vehicles are the norm rather than the exception, and plug-in hybrids are gaining increasing traction in the marketplace.

Perhaps most importantly, the EIA forecasts that carbon dioxide emissions won't exceed their 2007 levels again until 2025. That's good news, in that it's a lot easier to envision how to get to a 25 to 40 percent reduction in global warming pollution from a starting point of emission stability than it is from a baseline of steadily increases in pollution. But it's also bad news, in that it shows that all of the work that has been done to promote clean energy over the last decade - work highlighted in our recent report, America on the Move - is just the beginning of what must be done prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

The EIA projections give us some idea of the most productive places to start. First, while the energy efficiency steps we've already taken will yield big benefits, there is far, far greater potential to improve the efficiency of our homes, businesses, factories and cars than is incorporated in the EIA's projections. Implementing cutting-edge building energy codes, continuing to raise the bar on automobile fuel efficiency standards, improving the energy efficiency of factories and commercial buildings, and moving forward on long-overdue fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks should be high on the agenda.

Second, the EIA forecasts that carbon dioxide emissions from transportation will continue to increase between now and 2035, despite large increases in vehicle fuel economy. That is primarily due to a large projected increase in vehicle-miles traveled, with Americans projected to be driving 1.5 trillion more miles in their cars annually by 2035. Whether vehicle travel will resume its meteoric rise after several years of relative stability is open to debate. (And I, for one, am skeptical, given the prospect of continued high oil prices, the recent shift in consumers' preferences away from exurban-style living, and my own personal inability to imagine what Route 128 around Boston, for example, would look like with 50 percent more cars on it.)

But regardless of whether EIA's prediction is on track, it does reinforce the point that, when it comes to addressing transportation's contribution to global warming, technological changes in cars only get you so far. We also need to give people options for driving less - whether it is better local public transportation service, new community designs that make driving an option rather than a requirement, or major new investments in passenger rail.

Lastly, the projections hint that one very productive strategy for addressing America's energy challenges is to do everything we can to speed up the rate at which clean energy strategies are adopted in the United States. It is very exciting, for example, to think that hybrids will be dominating new light-duty vehicle sales by 2035. But why not by 2025? Or 2015? The technology exists today and it has been successfully integrated into all manner of vehicles - from tiny two-seaters to hulking behemoths. If addressing our twin afflictions of global warming and dependence on oil is truly worthy of a "put a man on the moon"-type societal effort, Implementing the solutions we already have on a broader scale seems like a great way to start.