August 19, 2009 | General

Renewable Energy Grew In 2008

BioCycle August 2009, Vol. 50, No. 8, p. 45
Biomass Energy Outlook
Mark Jenner

RENEWABLE energy consumption jumped to a record 7.3 percent of total 2008 U.S. energy consumption based on preliminary estimates of the Energy Information Administration (EIA). In other words, 7.301 quadrillion BTUs (Quad) of renewable energy satisfied the 99.305 Quad of energy consumption. Fossil fuels were down to a low of 83.436 Quad (84.0%) and nuclear fuel consumption increased to 8.455 Quad (8.5%).
Back in 2000, total energy consumption hit 98.975 Quad for the first time. While the highest ever U.S. energy consumption of 101.554 Quad was reported in 2007, it is good that for the last 10 years, consumption has hovered within 2 percent of 99 Quad.
In a nutshell, our energy consumption has plateaued. During the initial energy crisis, consumption hovered between 73 Quad and 80 Quad for 15 years (1972-1987). The rest of the last 50 years has been a steady increase upward.
One way to increase the proportion of renewable energy use is to lower the total energy consumption. If annual consumption could be reduced to 1972 levels of 73 Quad, the same amount of renewable energy used in 2008 would supply 10 percent of U.S. energy instead of 7.3 percent. New energy creation gets more attention, but we are making significant strides in energy conservation.


The EIA sorts the 7.3 percent of renewable energy consumed two ways: by production technology and by sector use. The major production technology divisions are: biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind.
In 2008, 3.884 Quad of biomass energy was consumed – 53 percent of total renewable energy. Biofuels supplied 1.413 Quad, with 97 percent based on ethanol and conversion losses. The other 3 percent was supplied by biodiesel fuel and conversion losses. Waste-derived energy consumed in 2008 supplied only 0.431 Quad. Within the waste sources, landfill gas supplied 43 percent and biogenic MSW (combusted) supplied 39 percent. Wood and Derived Fuels supplied 2.041 Quad. While this is the largest component of biomass fuels, it is the only one that had a net decrease from 2007, which is likely related to the economic slowdown of the housing industry.
The other four sources of renewable energy account for the remaining 47 percent. Geothermal supplied 0.358 Quad. Conventional hydroelectric supplied 2.453 Quad, down because of reduced surface water flows, e.g., droughts, floods, and disputes. In 2006, hydroelectric supplied 2.869 Quad, which is a large decrease.
Energy supplied in 2008 by solar sources was 0.091 Quad. Remember that a Quad is a quadrillion BTUs, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 BTUs, so this “tiny” number represents 91 trillion BTUs (equivalent to three 1,000 MW nuclear reactors). Wind energy supplied 0.514 Quad. With all the excitement about the rapid expansion of wind capacity, this number also is a bit underwhelming, although it does represent a 50 percent increase from 2007. And projects that started construction in 2008 may not register a full year of energy production until 2010.
EIA also distributes the 7.301 Quad of renewable energy data by five consumption sectors-residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and electric power. As a percent of total renewable energy, residential consumption used 8.7 percent and commercial retail industries used only 1.7 percent. Industrial sectors consumed 28.2 percent of the renewable energy. The transportation sector used 11.4 percent. And the electric power generation supplied 50.5 percent of the 7.3 Quad of renewable energy consumed in 2008.

Reading all these numbers may be intimidating, but with billions of dollars of stimulus money being billed to our grandchildren, it is important to at least try to understand them. One reasonable conclusion from the above discussion is that if the wood products industry recovers and the rivers flow normally, renewable energy could increase by another 1.4 Quad. So the existing infrastructure is larger than the consumption numbers actually show.
As these 2008 energy consumption numbers began trickling out over the last few weeks, some headlines presented them as renewable energy supplying 11 percent of energy production. Since we are net importers of energy (think foreign crude oil), the total U.S. energy production will be smaller than the total U.S. energy consumption. When renewable energy values are divided by the smaller production values, the percent looks more impressive.
Understanding what these numbers mean also depends on knowing how the numbers were prepared. The EIA supplies some detailed footnotes. One survey used to estimate residential wood use (the Residential Energy Consumption Survey) is taken every four years. Based on results of the 2005 survey, residential wood use estimates were lowered. This is a bit counter-intuitive given the excitement about fuel pellets.
Renewable energy use is increasing at a time when energy consumption is no longer increasing. Fossil fuel use is decreasing and there appears to be more capacity installed than was utilized. The EIA report is a boost in these challenging times.

Mark Jenner, PhD, operates Biomass Rules, LLC and has over 25 years of biomass utilization expertise. Burning Bio News is Jenner’s scorecard of bioenergy project adoption, available at

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