- U.S. electricity use, which took an unexpected dive in 2020 after COVID-19 began, may return to 2019 levels as early as 2022, according to the latest Annual Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
- After the expected quick recovery from COVID-19, according to the EIA report, the U.S. stands to increase its electrical generating capacity by 52-84% by 2050. Renewable resources, especially solar, may account for as much as 60% of the nation's new capacity, according to assistant EIA administrator Angelina LaRose.
- Natural gas consumption could either expand or contract, depending on future natural gas prices relative to renewables, according to EIA's projections. However, demand for liquid fossil fuels could take as long as 30 years to recover, depending on the speed with which demand returns from the transportation sector, LaRose said.
Overall energy consumption took a major hit due to the pandemic, with the total decline 70% larger than observed in 2008 with the onset of the Great Recession. But in the first Annual Energy Outlook released by EIA since the global health crisis began, the agency predicts a swift recovery.
The pandemic seems unlikely to result in any long-term impacts to the electric sector, according to LaRose, while consumption of liquid fuels could remain below 2019 levels through 2050. However, the pandemic seems unlikely to result in any long-term impacts to the electric sector, while consumption of liquid fuels could remain below 2019 levels through 2050.
"Travel was the most impacted by COVID-19," LaRose said, explaining that air travel is not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2025, while bus travel may not recover until 2031 and light duty vehicle travel could remain depressed through 2024.
Even after that recovery, she said, the agency has projected very little growth in fuel consumption by the transportation sector. "What's striking is how little change occurs within sectors between 2020 and 2050. The first few years reflect recovery from the pandemic, but the large majority of petroleum growth occurs only in the industrial sector."
For electrical generation specifically, LaRose said EIA expects to see continued sharp declines for coal, though the fate of natural gas depends heavily on potential price trade-offs between natural gas and renewable resources.
"The cost of producing electricity from renewable sources has declined significantly, and there are reasons to believe this trend will continue," she said.
Depending on whether the cost of natural gas exceeds the cost of renewable generation, U.S. electricity expansion is projected to grow between 52-84% by 2050. Renewable energy, LaRose said, could account for as much as 60% of that new capacity, with EIA models identifying solar as the likely resource of choice, barring changes in federal policy.
LaRose also noted that while generating capacity could increase by two-thirds or more, actual net generation is expected to increase by only a third. The additional capacity, she said, reflects a potential expansion of wind and solar generation beyond absolute demand to account for the intermittency of those resources.
Regardless of the outcome for natural gas, LaRose said that none of the scenarios modeled by EIA saw a return of carbon dioxide emissions to their 2017 peak. However, CO2 emissions could begin to tick upward again after 2035, alongside increased energy demand.