The Energy Superpower
When you’re thoroughly dominated a variety of competitive pursuits, there’s nowhere to go but down. It happens to athletes and also to countries, especially disproportionately wealthy and powerful ones like the U.S.
Take the energy sector, where despite a shale revolution engineered in the U.S. the perception too often is that foreigners know better. For example, conventional wisdom holds that Denmark is the global leader in wind energy, while Iceland sets the standard in geothermal power. Nuclear power is dominant in France, and Saudi Arabia and Russia have been the world’s leading oil and gas producers for decades.
These narratives are popular and powerful. Editorials urge us to follow Denmark’s lead, for example, in developing wind power in the U.S. Thus, it often comes as a big surprise to some that not only does the U.S. lead the world in all of these categories, in some cases the race isn’t even close.
It’s easy to see how these narratives developed. In the case of wind, geothermal, and nuclear power, the per capita output of certain countries is higher than in the U.S. Iceland, for example, has a large reserve of geothermal power for a small country with a population of 330,000. So its per capita geothermal power production is quite high. But on an absolute basis, Iceland’s 700 megawatts (MW) of geothermal capacity are only one-fifth of the U.S. capacity of 3.5 gigawatts (GW).
The same is true for wind power. A small country surrounded by the sea, Denmark has many wind farms. Thus, per capita wind power production there is high. But on an absolute basis, the U.S. produced nearly 14 times more electricity from wind than Denmark in 2015. In other words, there are far more dollars flowing into the U.S. wind sector and many more opportunities in the sector here than in Denmark.
France derives 75% of its electricity from nuclear power, but its 437 terawatt-hours (TWh) of nuclear power consumed in 2015 was just over half of the 839 TWh consumed in the U.S. China is far back at 171 TWh consumed in 2015, but that marks a doubling of Chinese nuclear power consumption in just the past four years. This is a situation where the U.S. is king, but China’s growth trajectory is likely to carry it to the top position in the next decade.
The shale boom in the U.S. also shook up the top ranks of global oil and gas producers. In 2009 the U.S. surpassed Russia to become the world’s largest natural gas producer. By 2015, U.S. natural gas production was 34% above Russia’s. Last year the U.S. also vaulted past Russia and Saudi Arabia to reclaim the title of the world’s largest oil producer, according to the 2016 BP Statistical Review of World Energy (The BP oil rankings include natural gas liquids.)
In fact, coal was the only major energy source for which the U.S. failed to claim the top spot. China produces nearly 50% of the world’s coal, and although U.S. coal output has been declining, the 12% global share we held in 2015 was still good for second place.
The U.S. ranked first in overall energy production, oil production, natural gas production, nuclear power, wind power, geothermal power and biofuel production last year, according to the BP review. The U.S. ranked second globally in coal production, solar power production and, overall energy consumption; it placed 4th in hydropower. In all categories not led by the U.S. China was #1.
While U.S. energy production is up, our energy consumption has declined over the past decade, according to BP’s annual. Further, natural gas has been replacing coal in the power sector (another opportunity we have highlighted here on many occasions). Thus, while the U.S. was the world’s top emitter of carbon dioxide for most (if not all) of the 20th century, no other country has experienced such a rapid decline in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade. China surpassed us in 2006 and hasn’t looked back. The estimated 5.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S. in 2015 was still second globally behind China’s 9.2 billion metric tons.
Nevertheless, the U.S. remains the world’s energy superpower, which is one reason we don’t have to spread ourselves too thin with energy investments around the globe. Please consider subscribing to The Energy Strategist as we highlight the biggest opportunities in the sector.