It is easy, with all that we hear about the rise of alternative energy in the U.S., to lose sight of one basic fact: In terms of real everyday energy consumption in the U.S., fossil fuels still rule. In fact, so far in 2014, over 90 percent of energy consumption in America has been supplied by oil, natural gas or coal.
According to the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) numbers, non-fossil fuel energy accounted for about 9.25 percent of total American energy use in 2013. That in and of itself is probably surprising to many people, but if you dig a little deeper into the numbers, other surprising facts emerge.
Below is the year-to-date U.S. energy consumption by source, as of June 23.
Source: Oilprice Widgets
The problem, you see, is that we are all inclined to judge the relevance of something by the amount of media coverage it receives. On that basis, renewable energy is simply huge! Whole oceans of ink and countless electrons around the Internet have been used up talking about the rise of wind and solar power. Naturally we assume that they are currently leading the way and transforming energy consumption in America. Well, you know what they say about assumptions...
Even within the 8.75 percent of consumption that renewable sources account for, neither wind nor solar power are particularly significant.
Nuclear power comes in fourth behind the big three and accounts for as much production as every other renewable energy source combined; wind and solar, on the other hand, together account for 1.39 percent of supply.
Solar alone supplies less than one-tenth of one percent of the total. I don't have exact numbers, but I would bet whatever I could lay my hands on that it accounts for a higher percentage of energy-related media coverage than that.
It's not that solar and other alternative energy sources aren't going to be extremely important in the future. It's just that the future is not here yet. The big three; oil, natural gas, and coal still dominate. Within those three, things are shifting quite rapidly. Coal is losing ground and natural gas usage is increasing. Energy usage, particularly for electricity generation, is clearly cleaner than in the past and that trend is likely to continue, but anybody who tries to tell you that we are close to the end for companies with a focus on traditional energy sources is way off the mark.
Of course coal, oil and gas are finite and it is only logical that a shift to renewable energy is coming. The numbers show that that is happening, but it is still a long way off.
All of this leaves the U.S. with two obvious implications for energy investors. Firstly, don't give up yet on oil and gas producers; they are still expanding to meet growing demand and will continue to do so in the near future. Secondly, if you look at certain solar or wind energy stocks and believe you have missed the boat, you are probably wrong. There is still a long way to go if either is to fulfill its potential.
Recent advances in cost control and the potential for an eventual solution to the problem of storing the energy generated from alternative sources mean that we may not be far from an acceleration of that process, but if we trust the data, rather than the impression that media coverage leaves us with, it is obvious that that has not yet begun.
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Written by Martin Tillier at Oilprice.com.