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Is the U.S. DOE Passing or Failing When Comes to Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency?

June 1, 2017

This paper evaluates the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) “Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy” (OEERE) from the standpoint of budget appropriations and performance in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A best attempt is made to untether fossil fuels from climate change. Information is presented solely to make a case for or against OEERE’s effectiveness in making a positive change in U.S. energy mix (range of energy resources).

Some of the information contained herein lends itself to emotional and intellectual debates about anthropogenic climate change. Regardless of cause and effect of GHG emissions, there is however universal agreement of an increase in atmospheric heat-trapping gases and a steady rise in earth’s surface temperature. Packed within this discussion are explanatory entries to facilitate a deeper understanding of the information under discussion.

This paper consists of the following sections:

  • GREENHOUSE GAS LEVELS: 1990 – 2014



Since the formation of the DOE almost 40 years ago, from the underpinnings of the Atomic Energy Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Energy Research and Development Administration, the DOE continues to be all about nuclear security. To the extent that the DOE FY 2017 budget request allocates 58% to Atomic Energy Defense (AED) programs and only 13% to energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE) activities, non-nuclear programs are far from mission critical.

Since its inception in 1978, the OEERE has worn several monikers to reflect its changing scope – Office of Conservation and Solar Applications, Office of Conservation and Solar Energy, and Office of Conservation and Renewable Energy.  In 1993, the Office assumed its current name.

According to the DOE, “the mission of OEERE is to create and sustain American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy.”  OEERE is also chartered to accelerate the transition of U.S. energy economy from fossil fuels to clean energy, and thereby reduce emissions of harmful GHG and pollutants emitted during the combustion / burning of hydrocarbon resources for electricity, heat and transportation. This dual prong strategy provides an effective pathway to ensure America’s energy independence while reducing US contribution to climate change.

OEERE enacted appropriations from FY 2005 to FY 2016 totaled $21.2 billion, an average of $1.77 billion over the last 12 fiscal years. OEERE expenditures prior to FY 2005 do not afford a reliable comparative analysis to current appropriations due to numerous budget and project changes.

Recent advances in oil and gas extraction technologies such as hydraulic fracturing allowed Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Companies (O&G) to economically recover vast quantities of hydrocarbon energy resources from unconventional rock formations such as shale and tight sands, which in the past were difficult and less economical to produce. These developments allowed U.S. energy imports and exports to balance for first time since 1950s.

The relevant point is securing energy independence from foreign oil was driven by federal mandates and home grown technology rather than DOE initiatives.



Figure 1 is segmented into three areas:

  1. Total DOE FY Budget Appropriations (top section);
  2. EERE Allocations (midsection), and
  3. Other Energy Programs and Expenditures (lower section).

The Figure also provides a breakdown of the DOE FY 2017 Congressional Budget Request to Congress and the FY 2016 Enacted Budget; $32.5 billion and $29.6 billion, respectively.

Note: Federal agencies submit their budget requests to the Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which prepares and manages the budget for the President. Agencies may receive OMB passbacks for changes. The President transmits the final budget request to Congress. Enacted is a joint resolution, passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President.

According to the DOE, “the Budget Request supports a broad portfolio of programs, including support for the National Laboratory system of 17 laboratories to carry out critical responsibilities for America’s security and economy in three areas:

  • Building the Future through Science and Clean Energy,
  • Ensuring Nuclear Security, and
  • Organizing, Managing and Modernizing the Department to Better Achieve Its Enduring Missions.”

As with most budgets, differences exist between what is requested and what gets enacted in terms of programs and level of appropriations. The DOE is no exception. For example, the DOE FY 2016 Congressional Budget Request allocated $2.72 billion for EERE programs, while the enacted budget cut EERE appropriations by $653 million, nearly a 25% reduction in funds. For the same fiscal year, the DOE enacted budget increased funding from the Requested Budget for Fossil Energy and Nuclear Energy Programs by 3% (+$27 million) and 9% (+$78.6 million), respectively.

The top section of Figure 1 provides a high-level view of the total DOE FY 2017 Budget Request. The request is segmented into five areas of appropriations. This includes four primary funding centers – Atomic Energy Defense (AED), Energy Programs not including EERE projects, EERE Projects, and Power Marketing Administrations.  A fifth line item, Adjustments, is less consequential to DOE’s priorities, and therefore, not included in this discussion.

Highlights of the FY 2017 Budget Request include:

  • AED appropriations absorb 58% of the entire DOE budget,
  • Energy programs, not including EERE, are allocated 29% of the DOE budget,
  • Total FY 2017 EERE allocations jumped to 13% of the DOE budget request from 7% of the FY 2016 enacted budget.

Figure 1

Source: Department of Energy FY 2017 Congressional Budget Request

The argument is not whether AED is more important than EERE; rather it is a question of the horsepower necessary to propel America into a clean and sustainable energy future. This is not to say the DOE. has not made strides to enhance energy security and clean energy competitiveness. However, when $2 billion is spread over 11 major areas of concentration (see below) and several less critical areas of responsibility, it’s rather difficult to accomplished major milestones in the short term.

  1. Vehicle Technologies,
  2. Bioenergy Technologies,
  3. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies,
  4. Solar Energy,
  5. Wind Energy,
  6. Water Power,
  7. Geothermal Technologies,
  8. Advanced Manufacturing,
  9. Federal Energy Management Program,
  10. Building Technologies, and
  11. Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs.

Less critical areas include: Corporate Support, Program Direction, Strategic Programs, Facilities and Infrastructure.



EERE appropriations given in the midsection of Figure 1 consist of six primary funding activities – Sustainable Transportation, Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Corporate Support as well as two new programs for FY 2017, Crosscutting Innovation Initiatives ($215 million) and Obama’s Administration’s 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan ($1.335 billion).

The DOE asserts “the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy FY 2017 Budget Request provides increased funding for high‐impact applied research, development, demonstration and deployment activities in sustainable transportation, renewable power, and end‐use energy efficiency.  The Request also supports initial funding of one additional Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute in EERE.”

The depth and breadth of EERE budget appropriations encompass the following areas of responsibilities.

Sustainable Transportation projects:

  • Vehicle Technologies,
  • Bioenergy Technologies, and
  • Hydrogen / Fuel Cell Technologies.

Renewable Energy programs:

  • Solar Energy,
  • Wind Power,
  • Water Power, and
  • Geothermal Energy.

Energy Efficiency programs:

  • Advanced Manufacturing,
  • Federal Energy Management,
  • Building Technology and Weatherization, and
  • Intergovernmental programs.

Corporate Support activities:

  • Facilities and Infrastructure,
  • Program Direction, and
  • Strategic Programs.

Crosscutting Innovation Initiatives are designed to “strengthen regional clean energy innovation ecosystems, accelerate next‐generation clean energy technology pathways, and encourage clean energy innovation and commercialization collaborations between DOE National Laboratories and American entrepreneurs.”

The 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan “includes $500 million to support scale‐up of clean transportation R&D through initiatives to accelerate cutting the cost of battery technology; advance the next generation of low carbon biofuels, particularly for intermodal freight and fleets; and establish a mobility systems integration facility to investigate systems level energy implications of vehicle connectivity and automation.”

Primary aspects of FY 2017 EERE appropriations entail:

  • Funding for all DOE Energy programs constitute about 42% of the total DOE Budget Request; 13% for EERE programs, 29% for all other Energy Programs,
  • Major reason for the increase in EERE appropriations to 13% from 7.0% in the previous year is the new 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan,
  • EERE allocations as a percent of the total DoE Budget Request and dollars requested are:
    • The new Transportation plan eclipses all other EERE programs at 1% ($1.335 billion),
    • Energy Efficiency programs8% ($919 million),
    • Sustainable Transportation activities – 6% ($853 million),
    • Renewable Energy programs – 9% ($621 million,
    • Corporate Support activities – 9% ($291 million), and
    • New Crosscutting Innovation Initiatives – 7% ($215 million).

The final section of the Budget overview enumerates the remaining 14 DOE Energy Programs and Expenditures. The most heavily funded activities in this section include (percent of the 2017 budget request):

  • Science (17.5%) – basic research programs in physics, chemistry, materials science, biology, environmental science, applied mathematics, and computational science;
  • Nuclear Energy projects (3.1%) – “supports the diverse civilian nuclear energy programs of the U.S. Government, leading Federal efforts to research and develop nuclear energy technologies, including generation, safety, waste storage and management, and security technologies, to help meet energy security, proliferation resistance, and climate goals; and
  • Fossil Energy Programs (2.0%) – “Clean Coal Technology, Fossil Energy Research and Development, Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, Elk Hills School Lands Fund, Strategic Petroleum Reserve and Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve

For more detailed information about the DOE FY 2017 Congressional Budget Request, please visit Budget in Brief.

Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between the total DOE (red bars) and EERE (blue bars) budget requests from FY 2000 to FY 2017. EERE allocations range from 1.7% in 2000 to 13% in 2017.

Total EERE allocations averaged about 6.3% during the 18-year period, with an upward trend starting in 2014. Other than 2017, EERE funding never exceeded 10% of the total DOE Budget Request to Congress and averaged about 5% from FY 2000 to FY 2013.

The large increase in FY 2017 DOE funding request is due to $1.335 billion allocated to two new programs – 21st Century Clean Transportation and Crosscutting Innovation Initiatives. Not taking into consideration these programs, the EERE budget is more in line with previous DOE Budget Requests, i.e., $2.68 billion at 8.3%.

Figure 2

Source: Department of Energy FY 2000 through 2017 Congressional Budget Requests

Figure 3 shows FY 2012 to FY 2017 budget allocations for the 16 EERE programs itemized in Figure 1. These investments cover 14 carryover programs and the two new programs mentioned above. Though there are year-to-year differences in the amount allocated to each program (less the two new programs), for the most part the overall spending pattern and levels do not radically change over the six fiscal years.

Key Points of Figure 3 include:

  • At $1.335 billion, the 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan Investments are estimated to receive almost a third of the FY 2017 DOE funds allocated to EERE.
  • The other new program, Crosscutting Innovation Initiatives is projected to receive $215 million or 5.1% of FY2017 funds,
  • Other EERE appropriations are ($ Allocated, % of total EERE Appropriations for FY2017):
    • Vehicle Technologies ($468 million, 11%),
    • Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs ($326 million, 7.7%),
    • Building Technology ($289 million, 6.8%),
    • Solar Energy ($285 million, 6.7%),
    • Bioenergy Technology ($278 million, 6.6%),
    • Advanced Manufacturing ($261 million, 6.2%), and
    • The remaining activities – Wind Energy, Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies, Geothermal Technology, Facilities and Infrastructure, Water Power, Federal Energy Management Programs, and Strategic Programs – were allocated less than $170 million each in FY2017.

Figure 3

Source: Department of Energy FY 2012 through 2017 Congressional Budget Requests



Using total RE capacity as a measure of DOE’s effectiveness in transitioning the US to a low-carbon energy future, America’s prowess in renewable energy capacity is unquestioned. According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network, by the end of 2015, the seven countries with the highest capacity of renewable energy (not including hydro power) are China (199GW), U.S.(122GW), and Germany (92GW) followed by Japan (43GW), India (36GW), Italy (33GW), and Spain (32W), Figure 4.

Figure 4

The same report states, “considering investments made in new renewable power and fuels relative to annual GDP, top countries include Mauritania, Honduras, Uruguay, Morocco and Jamaica. The leading countries for investment per inhabitant were Iceland, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Japan and Ireland.”

America’s energy flow from the perspective of resources and consumption serve as an invaluable tool to visualize the U.S. energy mix and their interrelationships. The energy flow charts, Figures 5 and 6, from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are a single page reference that illustrates energy and material flows in a way that distinguishes between resources, transformations and demand sectors, and thereby, details the sources of energy production, how they are used and how much waste exists. The Figures model the U.S. Energy Flow for 2010 and 2015, respectively.

The size of each box and the thickness of each line is a relative measure of the amount of energy delivered, received or lost. It displays the connections between primary energy resources (fossil, nuclear, hydro and renewables) on the far left, and end-use sectors categorized into residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation on the right. Energy is expressed in Quads, where a quad is equal to 10E15 BTU or 1.055 × 10E18 joules (1.055 exajoules or EJ) in SI units.

Electricity Generation (EG) is listed midway between the primary sources of energy and the final demand centers. The reason for this is EG’s role as a secondary source of energy; transforming primary energy resources (resources listed on the left) into electricity consumed by the end-use sectors and heat energy lost (large gray line on its right side)

The grey boxes on the far right quantify “Rejected Energy” and “Energy Services.” Rejected energy refers to energy that’s lost and not used, such as energy released as waste heat from boilers, car engines and power turbines. Energy Services refer to energy that is used to perform work.

This discussion shall focus on the left side of the chart – Energy Source. Sources of renewable energy include Solar, Wind, Geothermal and Biomass. Hydo (hydropower, hydroelectric) is excluded as a renewable source of energy.

Not everyone agrees on whether hydropower should be classified as a renewable source of energy. There are many schools of thought, and qualification varies state-by-state. “One argument against qualification is that most hydroelectric facilities were built before adoption of renewable portfolio standards (explained later in this discussion); a mandate to increase production of energy from renewable resources such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and new waterpower technologies.  Another argument points out that conventional hydroelectric plants interrupt the flow of rivers and can harm local ecosystems, and that building large dams and reservoirs involve displacing people and wildlife. However, unconventional hydropower using currents, waves, and tidal energy to produce electricity is less disruptive and qualifies as renewable.”

Conversely, biomass is considered a renewable source of energy. Biomass “is an energy source that is derived from crop waste and wood, but it is also derived from garbage, manure, sewage sludge and other organic waste that society continuously produces. For this reason,  biomass is considered to be a natural and renewable source.”

Figure 5

Figure 6

Looking at America’s energy mix between 2015 and 2010, utilization of renewables grew approximately 1.8 quads; [wind (+0.9 quads), biomass (+0.43 quads), solar (+0.42 quads) and geothermal (+0.1 quads)]. While, utilization of fossil fuels declined about 2 quads; [coal (-5.12 quads), petroleum (-0.57 quads) and natural gas (+3.65 quads)], during the same period.

Increase in natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel, utilization at the expense of coal in electricity power generation is attributed to stringent air quality standards by the EPA and plentiful supplies of domestic and relatively inexpensive natural gas from the shale gas bonanza afforded by technologies such as the hydraulic fracturing of hydrocarbon laced shale formations.

With regards to the renewable energy and fossil debate, it’s pertinent to note that a 2014 press release from the DOE Office of Fossil Energy stated: “ …. the DOE, EPA and DOI’s (Department of Interior) U.S. Geological Survey signed a related memorandum of agreement initiating multi-agency collaboration on unconventional oil and gas research (includes hydrofracturing of shale formations). The President’s FY 2014 budget request allocates $44.7 million to fund this effort.” The point is DOE’s ongoing interest in bolstering fossil fuel utilization.

The energy flow charts also indicate:

  • Renewable resources and fossil fuels constitute about 90% of U.S. energy mix in both 2010 and 2015. The remaining 10% is made up of hydropower and nuclear energy.
  • The share of renewables in U.S. energy mix increased 1.8% from 2010 (5.65%) to 2015 (7.49%),
  • The share of fossil fuels in U.S. energy mix declined 1.7% from 2010 (83.2%) to 2015 (81.5%),
  • Petroleum was the predominate energy source constituting no less than 36% of all energy sources in both 2010 and 2015.
  • Natural gas showed the most significant increase in usage of any energy source growing 15% (+3.65 quads) from 2010 to 2015,
  • The other fossil fuel and one of the dirtiest, Coal, showed the largest decrease of any energy source declining 25% (-5.12 quads) from 2010 to 2015,
  • The share of hydro power and nuclear energy in U.S. energy mix remained relatively stable from 2010 to 2015,
  • Wind energy showed the largest growth in renewable energy generation, an increase of approximately 0.9 quads from 2010 to 2015,
  • Both biomass and solar energy grew about 0.42 quads during the same period,
  • Geothermal showed negligible growth during the same 5-year period.

A salient feature of the chart has to do with the slight change in overall energy consumption between 2010 and 2015.  The U.S. population grew by 11.35 million from 308.74 million in 2010 and 320.1 million by 2015. According to Figures 5 and 6, total U.S. energy generation was 97.92 and 97.43 quads in 2010 and 2015, respectively. Therefore, as population increased, society’s demand for energy decreased by 0.5 quads. It’s a long shot, but this reduction in energy consumption from a larger population base may equate to some degree the effectiveness of the effectiveness of DOE’s Energy Efficiency programs.

Another, meaningful, measure to determine DOE’s effectiveness in transitioning America to a low carbon-energy future is the share (percentage) of renewable energy (hydro, wind, geothermal and solar) in total electric generation.

This measure gives an entirely different picture from capacity statistics. Figure 7 shows  2015 share of renewables (including hydropower) by countries; data compiled by Enerdata. The red bar shows America’s share of renewable energy at 13.8% (about 7.5% without hydro, see Figure 6). The U.S. ranked 28th of the 44 countries included in the study, i.e., 27 countries used a higher percentage of renewables in their economy than the U.S.

Figure 7

Source: Enerdata

Norway with a 98% share of renewable energy is the world leader and benchmark towards 100% renewable energy. The other top 10 countries for renewable energy utilization includes Brazil (73.5%), Venezuela (68.9%), Colombia (67.9%), Sweden (64.3%), Canada (62.7%), Portugal (49.3%), Romania (42.6%), Chile (41.6 %), Italy (38.4%), and Spain (35.5%).

Most developed countries showed higher rates of renewables in their energy mix than the U.S. Though not shown in Figure 7, the U.S. share of renewables was also below the average share for the World (23.4%), OECD (23.6%), G7 (21.4%), BRICS (24.7%), Europe (34.2%), and North America (20.15).

A similar analysis conducted last year by the Author, showed the U.S. share of renewables in electricity production (including hydropower) at 13.7% in 2014. While the data points out the U.S. marginally increased its share of renewable energy by 0.1% in 2015, the U.S. ranked 27th in 2014, one position higher than 2015. Overall, U.S. usage of renewables on the world order remained relatively stable during this period, showing little or no meaningful growth.

One tool designed to stimulate demand of renewable sources of energy in electricity generation is Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). RPS which “began as a policy concept from California in the mid-1990s, has emerged at the state level as an primary driver for renewable energy capacity additions in the U.S.” RPS rules have “been adopted in 29 states, Washington, D.C., and three territories, while eight states and one territory have set renewable energy goals.”  In 2009, the US Congress considered Federal level RPS requirements. However, the proposed Support Renewable Energy Act died in the 111th Congress”

The primary objective of RPS is to offset emissions of greenhouse gases in electricity generation. The driving force behind the creation of RPS is the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970. The CAA  directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and enforce primary and secondary national ambient air quality standards for designated pollutants.”

As a “market-friendly” way of ensuring adoption of a minimum amount of renewable energy throughout the economy, RPS is a widely-used mandate (relative to other renewable energy policy mechanisms) because it generally does not require governmental funding.” RPS places an obligation on electricity retailers (generators) to provide a minimum percentage or quantity of their electricity supplies from renewable sources – such as wind, solar, biomass – and other alternatives to fossil and nuclear electric generation.”  Other eligible technologies include “certain hydroelectric facilities*; ocean wave, thermal and tidal energy; fuel cells using renewable fuels; landfill gas; and municipal solid waste conversion, not the direct combustion of municipal solid waste.”

The RPS market-driven mechanism works by “certified renewable energy generators earning renewable energy certificates (REC) for every unit of electricity they produce and selling the RECs along with their electricity to supply companies. Supply companies then pass the certificates to a regulatory body to verify their compliance with their renewable energy obligations.”

The increase in wind power and solar utilization is also attributed to technological advances and competitive energy costs. Not only do wind and solar projects provide a clean source of electricity, they also help keep electric rates low and provide a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility. Wind and solar energy costs have declined over the past few years as wind turbine technology has matured with taller towers and improved turbine efficiencies and solar benefited by the flood of cheap silicon panels.

Wind energy ‘is now one of the most cost-effective sources of new electricity generation, competing with new installations of other energy sources in wind-rich regions. According to Yale Environment 360, “Solar’s evolution over the past decade has been stunning, as falling prices and climbing demand drew photovoltaic costs level with, or below, power sources such as coal and even natural gas in some places.”

Excluding any possible renewable energy technology developments from the DOE, RSP, the most effective tool increasing the installed base of renewables in America’s energy landscape has its DNA in the EPA rather than the DOE. Recalling the Solyndra debacle (default of DOE’s $535 million loan guarantee to manufacture solar modules) as an example of wasted investments and intensive foreign competition especially in solar modules, it’s debatable whether DOE’s effort in providing new and improved renewable energy platforms has made any significant impact on improving U.S. adoption of renewable resources in its energy mix.



The other area of concentration by the DOE is Energy Efficiency (EE). The 2016 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) “examines the efficiency policies and performance of 23 of the world’s top energy-consuming countries. Together these countries represent 75% of all the energy consumed on the planet and over 80% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013.

ACEEE evaluated and scored each country’s efficiency policies and how efficiently its buildings, industry, and transportation sectors use energy. They evaluated each country using 35 policy and performance metrics spread over 4 categories: buildings, industry, transportation, and overall national energy efficiency efforts.” Figure 8 shows ACEEE’s energy efficiency ranking of the 23 countries. County ranking is designated by color: Light Green 1st-5th, Blue 6th-10th, Purple 11th-15th, Orange 16th-20th, and Red 21st-23rd.

Figure 8


According to the 2016 ACEEE Report, “the United States tied with South Korea for the 8th-place spot.” America’s score jumped to 61.5 points in 2016 from 42 points in the 2014 ACEEE Study where the U.S. ranked 13th of 16 counties evaluated. This improvement is attributed to better performance in the national efforts and buildings categories.

The analysis finds the U.S. long considered an innovative and competitive world leader, remaining behind Germany, Japan, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Spain in energy efficiency policies and performance. While, America showed significant improvements since the 2014 study, and thereby, narrowed the gap with Germany, the overall leader in both studies, to a 12-point spread from a 23-point spread in 2016 and 2014, respectively. German scored the most points in the national efforts, buildings, and industry categories, while India tied with Italy and Japan for first place in transportation,” Figures 8 and 9.

Figure 8: 2016 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, Ranking by Country


Figure 9: 2016 Energy Efficiency Overall Scores and Rankings

Source: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy


The 2016 ACEEE Report cited “the United States for its strong national effort on energy-intensity reduction and energy efficiency spending. Asserting, America’s energy efficiency improvements were due to numerous tax incentives and loan programs that encourage energy savings and its focus on investing in R&D for energy-efficient technologies.”

ACEEE also noted the United States excelled in the buildings section of the study, claiming the second spot. While US residential and commercial building codes are implemented at the state level, they were identified as some of the most aggressive in the world and include strict requirements for building envelope, heating and cooling, and lighting. America’s building score was also aided by state energy-use policies for retrofitting buildings, that cover two-thirds of the country’s population. Additionally, most US states provide tools, training, and resources to support the adoption and maintenance of building codes. Of the 23 nations evaluated, the United States was found to have the most mandatory appliance and equipment standards, covering more than 60 product categories.

“The United States scored well on policies encouraging investment in Combined Heat and Power. Furthermore, the US was found to have one of the highest levels of investment in industrial R&D, second only to Japan.” US progress toward greater energy efficiency was also attributed to stringent fuel economy standards for light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles.”

The 2016 report suggests further energy efficiency improvements can be archived by the U.S. in the following areas:

  • National Effort – Legislating binding national energy saving targets and establish energy conservation plans,
  • Buildings – Mandating building energy-use disclosure policies,
  • Industry – Authorizing energy audits and categorical labels for appliances,
  • Transportation – Promoting public transportation and investing more in rail systems.

A national energy efficient program visible to builders and consumers alike is ENERGY STAR® (ES). ES is a discretionary energy management and labeling program introduced by the EPA in 1992 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. ES provides certification to buildings and consumer products which meet certain standards of energy conservation.

In 1996, the EPA partnered with the DOE for particular product categories. The DOE was chartered to assist the EPA in improving the energy efficiency of products and buildings and expand various aspects of the program. Since inception, ENERGY STAR “has shown impressive results: in 2010 Americans saved enough energy to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 33 million cars, while saving nearly $18 billion on utility bills.” DOE’s impact on the success of the program is not clear.



Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for different periods of time due to differences in rates of decomposition and removal by sinks. Therefore, the radiative forcing of the gas or its capacity to affect that energy balance, thereby contributing to climate change, to varying degrees, with time.

Greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere through natural processes and human activities. The portfolio of natural processes includes above ground sources like animal and plant respiration and underground sources such as volcanic activities and sedimentary basins.

Human sources of greenhouse gas emissions consist of (percent of 2014 greenhouse gas emissions from anthropogenic activities):

  • Electricity production (30%)
  • Transportation (26%)
  • Industry (21%)
  • Commercial and Residential (12%)
  • Agriculture (9%)
  • Land Use and Forestry (offset of 11%) – sinks, the opposite of emissions sources and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is also naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth’s carbon cycle – the natural circulation of carbon among the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants, and animals. Human activities can alter the carbon cycle—both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by influencing the ability of natural sinks, like oceans and forests, to remove CO2 from the environment. While debates concerning the impact of elevated CO2 levels on climate change are slowly converging on agreement of CO2 induced global warming, public opinion seems to diverge on whether high levels of atmospheric CO2 are beneficial or harmful to plant life.

It is a fact that plant life depends on atmospheric carbon dioxide, light energy from the sun, water and nutrients to produce oxygen and sugars that builds roots, stems and leaves during photosynthesis. Without carbon dioxide, plants cannot get carbon and therefore, cannot live. Common logic then suggests that, as the level of atmospheric CO2 increases, so would plant growth. But is this true?

In Can Plants Overdose on CO2?,a survey of scientific studies investigating the impact of elevated levels of CO2 on plant growth, the author found agreement between investigators “that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 do increase plant growth when viewed only from the standpoint of CO2.” However, when other factors were considered, several investigations supported the opposing view that excessive amounts of ambient CO2 can adversely influence plant growth. These “secondary” factors – ambient temperature, local precipitation, soil condition, nutrient availability, and microorganism plant interactions – are the observable changes in weather patterns from accelerated atmospheric CO2 concentrations.”

Then where did the assumption originate that anthropogenic activities contribute to the rise in these GHG? Scientific America points out that that the human race “has subsisted for at least 200,000 years on a planet that has oscillated between 170 and 280 ppm of atmospheric CO2, according to records preserved in air bubbles trapped in ice.” Over the last 160 years, CO2 levels have risen above 400 parts per million (ppm). Thus, implying a direct relationship between the Industrial revolution, which began around 1760 to 1840, and increasing levels of atmospheric CO2.  This finding is also substantiated by other indirect measures like “tree rings, glacier lengths, pollen remains, and ocean sediments, and by studying changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun,” per the EPA.

The rise of Industrial Revolution coincided with the railroad industry’s reliance on steam locomotives powered by a relatively inexhaustible supply of cheap coal rather than firewood and charcoal which were less efficient and in short supply. Around the same time, coal-fired steam engines made inroads in the maritime industry, as steamboats began to replace barges and flatboats in the transport of goods around the United States. By mid-19th century, petroleum started to make inroads as domestic oil refining provided abundant supplies of kerosene for lighting and heating homes and industrial facilities. Later petroleum made a huge impact on the transportation industry as oil drillers in America learned how to supply an endless stream of low-cost petroleum-based fuels – diesel and gasoline – that fueled the rapid growth of the automotive, shipping and aviation industries.

In late 2010, the U.S. EPA issued a report concluding that fugitive emissions from the natural gas system from wellhead to burner may be far greater than previously thought. These fugitive emissions are therefore a particular concern since it is the major component of natural gas. As such, small leakages are important. Fugitive leakage becomes even more important as natural gas serves a greater role in America’s energy mix. Currently, the EPA exempts the Oil and Gas industry from direct controls of natural gas discharges.



To keep a level playing field between greenhouse gases, which have different absorbance and atmospheric lifetimes, the International Panel on Climate Change developed a comparative measurement system called Global Warming Potential (GWP). GWP compares the ability of each greenhouse gas to trap-heat in the atmosphere relative to carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 82% of all U.S. greenhouse gas discharges.

Since the heat-trapping ability of a gas is compared to that of CO2, a measure called carbon dioxide equivalents is used to express its GWP. Carbon dioxide equivalents represents an amount of a greenhouse gas whose atmospheric impact has been standardized to that of one-unit mass of CO2, based on the global warming potential of the gas.

For example, if 1 pound of methane is emitted, this can be expressed as 21 pounds of CO2 equivalents by multiplying; 1kg of CH4 by 21, its global warming potential at 100 years, see Figure 10. In other words, one pound of methane has the equivalent heat-trapping ability as 21 pounds of CO2, after 100 years in the atmosphere. Note, there is international disagreement between the EPA and IPCC on the actual GWP of methane; ranging from a low of 21 by the EPA and a high of 34 by the IPCC. Recently, EPA revised the value to 25.

Figure 10: Relationship between the GWP of methane (CH4) and CO2

Source: US EPA Website

Therefore, while methane is valuable as a fuel, it is also a greenhouse gas at least 21 times and possibly as much as 32 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, with even greater relative impacts over shorter periods. The meaning of “21 times more potent” relates to methane’s Global Warming Potential (GWP).

Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for different periods of time due to differences in rates of decomposition and removal by different sinks. Figure 11 illustrates the primary greenhouse gases emitted through human activities, their chemical formula, lifetimes and GWP at 20 and 100-year time horizons – a fixed time in the future.

As shown in red, at a time horizon of 20-years, methane has a global warming potential of 72, meaning that over this time period, the emission of 1 kg of methane will have the same climatic impact as the emission of 72 kg of carbon dioxide and about 3 times that at 100-years. In other words, methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t last nearly as long in the atmosphere.

Figure 11: GHG Heat-Trapping Potentials Compared to CO2

Source: Methane Carbon Dioxide Global Warming Potential


  1. Carbon lifetime is specified as “variable.” No single lifetime can be defined for CO2 because of the variety of sinks that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at different rates. For instance, between 65% and 80% of CO2 released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years. The rest is removed by slower processes that take up to several hundreds of thousands of years, including chemical weathering and rock formation. This means that once in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide can continue to affect climate for thousands of years.
  2. Water vapor is the most powerful greenhouse gas and the largest contributor to the Earth’s greenhouse effect. On average, it probably accounts for about 60% of the warming effect. Water vapor’s role in the Earth’s climate system is defined by the very short time it remains in the atmosphere and actively traps heat. While additional CO2 from factories or airplanes can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, extra water vapor will only remain a few days before raining down as water. The concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere is in equilibrium. The atmosphere can only hold more water vapor if overall temperatures increase. So, a small warming effect caused by human CO2 emissions will increase the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. Any added water vapor leads to even more warming, thus amplifying the CO2 warming effect. Water vapor follows temperature changes, it doesn’t cause or, as climatologists say, ‘force’ them.



The one area most agree upon in the Greenhouse Gas / Climate Change debate is the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. It’s irrelevant whether one believes climate change is anthropogenic induced or the result of changes in natural rhythm of the earth, the segue behind the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is the need to reduce these emissions, especially CO2, which is at levels not seen for at least 200,000 years. That is of course unless you are a plant. Yes, plant life absorbs CO2 from the environment to produce gaseous oxygen. Plant life is a very important sink for atmospheric CO2.

Regardless of the relationship between human activities and climate change, the question remains – has the DOE been effective in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Figure 12 provides a looking glass into the state of U.S. GHG emissions from 1990 to 2014. It illustrates the net emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several fluorinated gases for the stated time period in million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. The data represents the most recent greenhouse gas emissions data from the EPA; coming from their 2016 Annual Report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2014.

Figure 12. – U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas, 1990–2014

Source: U.S. EPA  Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2014 (April 2016)

Key Points of the report are:

  • “In 2014, the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 7% since 1990 and decreased 7% since 2005.”
  • “Emissions of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas (most likely) emitted by human activities, increased by 9%.”
  • “Methane emissions decreased by 6%, as reduced emissions from landfills, coal mines, and natural gas systems more than offset increases in emissions from activities such as livestock production.”
  • “Nitrous oxide emissions, predominantly from agricultural soil management practices such as the use of nitrogen as a fertilizer, decreased by 1%.”
  • “Emissions of fluorinated gases (hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride), released as a result of commercial, industrial, and household uses, increased by 77%.”
  • “….. electricity generation (power plants) accounts for the largest share of emissions—31% of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.”
  • “Transportation is the second-largest sector, accounting for 26% of emissions since 1990.”
  • “In 2014, 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were offset by net sinks resulting from land use and forestry practices.”
  • “Emissions increased at about the same rate as the population from 1990 to 2007, which caused emissions per capita to remain fairly level. “
  • Total emissions and emissions per capita declined from 2007 to 2009, due in part to a drop-in U.S. economic production during this time. Emissions decreased again from 2010 to 2012, largely due to the growing use of natural gas rather than more carbon-intensive fuels to generate electricity.
  • “From 1990 to 2014, greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of goods and services produced by the U.S. economy (the gross domestic product or GDP) declined by 40%. This change may reflect a combination of increased energy efficiency and structural changes in the economy.”


  1. From 1990 to 2014, natural events on earth such as geological activity and the amount energy from the sun reaching the earthdid not substantially change from previous years, and therefore, cannot be attributed to any dramatic changes to the earth’s climate.
  2. Natural gas emissions are considered either fugitive, vented or flared, where fugitive emissions are those that leak unintentionally from equipment such as pumps, valves, flanges, or other components. It been known for a long-time methane emission from the natural gas systems supply chain is real, but what most of did not realize, it’s a problem of significant proportions having a major negative impact to the environment and climate change.  In late 2010, the EPA issued a report concluding that direct discharges of natural gas into the environment from wellhead to burner may be far greater than previously thought.



DOE’s performance in transitioning America to an energy efficient and renewable energy economy has been lackluster at best. When compared to other developed and developing nations of the of the world, the U.S. ranks at the low-end of the scale. While the installed base of U.S. renewable energy capacity is the second highest in the world, its overall impact on America’s energy mix is rather disappointing, showing only moderate growth at home and slippage in the global arena.

The U.S. energy mix from 2010 to 2015 showed an increase of 1.8 quads of renewable energy sources and a decrease of about 2.0 quads of fossil fuels, see top section of Figures 5 and 6. On the broad scale, this increase in renewable energy capacity represents only 1.8% of U.S. energy demand in 2015. The net emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily CO2 was worse in 2014 than 1990.

The transition to a low carbon future is attributable to the EPA role in promulgating and enforcing the Clean Energy Act, the free-market and low-cost renewable technologies from offshore suppliers. Whereas, US progress towards greater energy efficiency has been aided by more stringent fuel economy standards from the EPA, comprehensive tax credit and loan programs to encourage efficiency, and voluntary partnerships between government and industry.

Inhibiting the transition is the high cost of renewable energy, its poor reliability and the federal government’s termination of subsidies for additional renewable energy capacity such as the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC), Business Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC), and Section 1603 Cash Grant for Renewable Energy. The direct role of the DOE to reduce cost and find cost effective methods of energy storage to offset reliability limitations is questionable.

DOE appropriations for most non-fossil energy programs are insufficient; diluted by the depth and breadth of their responsibilities. There is simply not enough horsepower behind key programs to achieve wide scale commercialization of renewable energy thorough the U.S. energy landscape in a reasonable timeframe.

Politics play a major role in determining a nation’s energy future. The DOE is a highly political organization and has undergone drastic changes in direction every 4 or 8 years.  Oil Change International, reported in 2014 “In addition to exploration and production subsidies to oil, gas, and coal companies, the U.S. government also provides billions of dollars of additional support to the fossil fuel industry to lower the cost of fossil fuels to consumers, finance fossil fuel projects overseas, and to protect U.S. oil interests abroad with the military. In 2013, the U.S. federal and state governments gave away $21.6 billion in subsidies for oil, gas, and coal exploration and production.”

The DOE is a supernumerary at best, paddling upstream in the midst of a fossil friendly industrial complex and government administrations that talk-the-talk but fail to walk-the-walk. The Department acts upon the stage with sound and fury signifying nothing or very little to do what’s right and diminish the nation’s role in generating environmentally harmful GHG emissions.

Now comes the biggest outlier of all – the Trump administration. The stage is set for a fossil friendly energy landscape free of any EPA and DOE involvement. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of further improvements on renewable energy utilization and energy efficiency plays in America? Possibly so but hopefully only temporarily!

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author Dr. Barry Stevens, an accomplished business developer and entrepreneur in technology-driven enterprises. He is the founder of TBD America Inc., a global technology business development group. In this role, he is responsible for leading the development of emerging and mature technology driven enterprises in the shale gas, natural gas, renewable energy and sustainability industries. To learn more about TBD America, please visit:

Barry Stevens, Ph.D., President, TBD America; May 26, 2017

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