Our Electricity Future: Things Don’t Change

Our energy portfolio in 2035 may look a lot like our portfolio in … well 2010.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) just posted their Early Release Overview of the 2011 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO), scheduled for official release in March 2011.* The report has a number of interesting projections on the energy picture in 2035. The focus here is on electricity.

Conservation Not Winning the Battle

The first thing to note about the EIA projection is that after a brief two-year retreat in 2008 and 2009 in response to the recession, total energy consumption in the US resumed its upward climb in 2010 and is projected to continue to do so in the coming decades — rising from about four to about five trillion kilowatt-hours per year from 2009 to 2035. You might think that that excess generation is going to be met with new renewable energy generation. And if you did, you would be wrong, at least according to the EIA.

Coal Remains King

Surprise, surprise. Despite all the talk about the coming low-carbon economy, the EIA predicts that King Coal will remain at the top of the heap, so to speak. In their projection, coal maintains the lion’s share of electricity generation falling by a mere two percent between now and 2035 — from 45 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2035.  Why do coal plants continue to supply so much of our electricity? It’s simple: because those plants are already there. Without incentives (price or regulations) to shift to cleaner fuels, the EIA predicts these coal plants will just keep on running and running and running. The good news, if you are fan of clean energy, is that absolute electricity generation from coal remains fairly flat from 2009 to 2035 at about two trillion kilowatt-hours per year. The projection includes an additional 21 gigawatts (GW) of new coal capacity.

Of course the EIA projections could prove wrong. For example, some assessments predict that implementation of EPA rules, that are currently in the pipeline, could retire somewhere between 50 and 80 GW of mostly coal-fired generating capacity in the next 2+ decades. And then there’s the possibility of climate legislation.

Natural Gas

After coal, comes natural gas — currently responsible for about 0.9 trillion kilowatt-hours annually or 23 percent [pdf] of US electrical generation. Mirroring coal, the change in natural gas’ generation is also modest, projected to grow to about 1.3 trillion kilowatt-hours (or 25 percent of total generation) by 2035.

What’s interesting is that shale gas provides an ever-growing chunk of natural gas as other conventional sources decline. It is also the prime mover in decreasing natural gas imports from 11 percent in 2009 to one percent in 2035.

Over the period from 2009 to 2035, shale gas’s contribution to total natural gas consumption is projected to increase from 14 percent to a whopping 45 percent in 2035 (see figure), reflecting recent growth in shale gas resources.

Of course tapping the shale gas resource is contingent on solving the water issues linked to hydrofracking.


For all the talk about a nuclear power renaissance, the EIA projections see virtually no change in total electrical generation from nuclear power plants.  The share of electrical generation from nuclear is projected to shrink from about 20 percent today to 17 percent by 2035.


The fastest growing energy sector in the EIA projection is renewables; between 2009 and 2035, total electricity generation from renewables will grow by 73 percent according to EIA. That seems like a lot but it’s an increase that starts from a very small base.  The renewable slice (including hydropower) of the total electricity pie is small today, and is projected to remain relatively small increasing by 4 percent to 14 percent in 2035. And interestingly, most of the increase occurs before ~ 2025. After 2025, renewable energy generation remains relatively flat at about 0.7 trillion kilowatt-hour per year.

In Toto?

So how does our energy future look in 2035? According to the EIA, lots of coal, some natural gas, a bit of nuclear and even less renewables. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s a lot like it is today. Fossil fuels locked in tight. But it could all change with … say a price on carbon price. Hey it could happen – people are crazy and times are strange.



*Every year the EIA issues an annual energy market forecast roughly 20 years into the future. The Reference case projections do not include the effects of potential future policies that have not yet become law.

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