Our Renewable Future


To begin to grasp how our energy useage will shift during the renewable energy transition, it is essential to first understand how we currently use energy throughout society. And in order to do that, it’s helpful to sort this usage by sector.

The International Energy Agency estimates that we consumed the equivalent of 13.54 billion metric tons of oil (or 157,483 terawatt-hours) globally in 2013, broken down into the somewhat opaque categories of Industry, Transport, Other, and Non-energy Use (“Other” essentially refers to buildings.) It’s interesting to note that the amount of energy lost—in transmission or conversion—or used by the energy industry itself is a whopping 31%.

World primary energy consumption in 2013, by sector, according to the International Energy Agency. Industry excludes energy conversion. Losses through the process of conversion and transmission (particularly in the form of electricity), along with the energy required by energy producers themselves, represents the single largest area of consumption. Source: International Energy Agency.

But even this classification of energy consumption doesn’t help us get a clear idea of how we really use all that energy or how deeply—and often invisibly—energy is embedded in our daily lives.

So, in this section of the website we’ll explore a few sectors of the American economy—transportation, food, manufacturing, buildings, water, and communications—to get a better sense of the energy reality of today, so that we can build a more sustainable and just energy future.


We could not cover every possible sector (we left out, for example, education, entertainment, finance, and the military), but in many cases energy uses in these other sectors are largely accounted for in the sectors we have covered. For example, these sectors all use energy to heat and light buildings and for communications, and all depend upon energy expended in transport and in manufacturing goods of various kinds.

This raises the issue of linkages. All of society’s sectors are tightly linked. For example, without food for workers in the communications, transport, and construction industries, those industries couldn’t function. Similarly, energy-using communications technologies are essential to the workings of the transport, food, construction, and manufacturing sectors. And communications systems can’t work without the transportation of spare parts and new components. And yet again, transportation is necessary for moving other kinds of manufactured products, as well as building materials and food.

While we’re at it, where would we warehouse food or retail products, including communications devices, without functioning buildings? How could we maintain our food system without the ability to manufacture farm machinery, or our communications systems if we couldn’t manufacture replacements for our hand-held devices and all the behind-the scenes infrastructure that enables them to work? And how long would our transportation system function without newly manufactured vehicles, tires, and other spare parts?

In sum, the economy’s sectors are thoroughly and intricately interdependent; modern societies are systems in which energy knits everything together, and makes possible everything we do.

Tractor being assembled in a John Deere factory. Photo credit: 279photo/Shutterstock.com.

Finance also links all of society’s various sectors—though, from an energy usage perspective, banking and finance are already accounted for in the communications and buildings sectors (as noted above). Credit and debt enable manufacturing, car purchases, building construction, and farming. While the direct energy footprint of finance and banking is not proportionally large, the energy used for this purpose plays an essential role in the functioning of our entire society.

The following sections explore the energy use of some of these sectors in depth. Each sector also includes a short exploration of the fossil-fueled foundations and energy interdependencies of our current energy system by examining some examples from everyday life. Seeing how thoroughly, and how subtly, fossil energy consumption is implicit in in our current world can then help us begin to imagine life without fossil fuels.

Getting a Sense of Scale

BTUs, quads, watts, joules, barrels of oil equivalent, gigawatt-hours… It’s easy to get confused by all the different units of measurement used to calculate energy volume, power, or intensity. And when numbers like 157,483 terawatt-hours are tossed around, it can be very hard to have a true sense of scale. So here’s a (hopefully) helpful visualization.