Line chart tracking U.S. energy consumption by fuel.
Y-axis: Quadrillion British thermal units (Btu); X-axis: 1785-2050 (e)
Chart compares U.S. use of petroleum, natural gas, coal, nuclear, and total renewables.
U.S. renewable energy use in 1785 was 0.3 quadrillion Btus. By 1850 coal produced 0.2 quadrillion Btus. In 1880 petroleum appears as an energy source, with 0.1 quadrillion Btus, followed in 1885 by natural gas, also at 0.1 quadrillion Btus. Finally, nuclear power appears in 1959 with 0.002 Btus.
While renewable energy use begins early, it grows slowly, never above 3 quadrillion Btus between 1786 and 1962. After 1963 use accelerates, reaching more than 6 quadrillion Btus by 1985, dipping to about 5.2 quadrillion Btus by 2001, before reaching over 11 quadrillion Btus in 2020. Renewable energy use is projected to increase at an accelerated pace, to nearly 19 quadrillion Btus by 2050.
Use of coal, by comparison, increases much more quickly, reaching nearly 13 quadrillion Btus by 1910, 15.5 by 1920, and 16 by 1945. U.S. coal use peaked in 2006 with over 22 quadrillion Btus. After that time it decreased rapidly, to about 10.3 Btus at the end of 2020. Projections call for a leveling of use to about 8 quadrillion Btus by 2050. From about 1890 to about 1950 coal was the primary U.S. energy source.
Like coal petroleum use also advanced rapidly, reaching 5.9 quadrillion Btus by 1930, nearly 18 quadrillion Btus by 1957 (when it was the primary U.S. energy source), over 37 quadrillion Btus by 1979 and nearly 40 quadrillion Btus by 2006. Use declined to just over 34 quadrillion Btus by 2013, but increased to above 38 quadrillion Btus in 2020 and is projected to remain at roughly that level through 2050, when it is projected to be challenged by natural gas as the primary U.S. energy source.
Natural gas use reached 2.7 quadrillion Btus by 1940 and then accelerated rapidly, reaching more than 22.5 by 1973. It fell to just over 16.5 quadrillion Btus by 1986, but then increased again, securing its position as the number two U.S. energy source at more than 32 quadrillion Btus by 2020. Projections call for it to reach nearly 38 quadrillion Btus by 2050, about tie with projected petroleum use.
Nuclear energy use grew to nearly 8 quadrillion Btus by 2003 but has since leveled off. By 2050 it is projected to decline somewhat to about 6.7 quadrillion Btus.
In 2020, petroleum, and natural gas are the primary U.S. sources of energy, followed by a close grouping of coal, renewables, and nuclear. By 2050, projections call for petroleum and natural gas to remain as leading energy sources, followed by renewables, coal, and nuclear in that order.
Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and Wells Fargo Investment Institute. Annual data from January 1, 1786 to December 31, 2021. EIA forecast data from 2022–2050 as of March 31, 2022. Total renewables includes hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass primary energy consumption. Dotted lines represent EIA forecast data. Forecasts are not guaranteed and based on certain assumptions and on views of market and economic conditions which are subject to change. The commodities markets are considered speculative, carry substantial risks, and have experienced periods of extreme volatility.
- Our lives revolve around energy use — lots of it. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas generate most of that energy today.
- Despite the accelerating green energy transition, fossil fuels will likely be the world’s primary energy source for decades to come.