Introducing the Energy Pyramid

Published September 17, 2014

When I was in elementary school, my teacher taught our class about the food pyramid and the importance of a balanced, healthy diet. If we were going to grow up to be big and strong, we needed to eat the right amount of food from each of the basic food groups: grains at the base of the pyramid, fruits and vegetables on the second tier, meats and dairy diary products third, and fats, oils, and sweets, the smallest portion, at the top.

Just as our bodies need diverse sources of energy to achieve maximum health, our economy needs energy from different sources for the exact same reason. Unfortunately, many people do not understand where the energy they rely on every day comes from. To do so, imagine a pyramid showing our energy supply like the food pyramid we learned about growing up.

Our energy pyramid, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), would look like this: petroleum (oil), making up 36 percent of our energy supply, would be like the whole grains; natural gas, at 27 percent, would be the fruits and vegetables; the meat and dairy tier is made up of coal, which accounts for 18 percent; and last, renewable energy and nuclear make up the very top of the pyramid, with 10 percent and 8 percent of our total energy consumption, respectively.

Oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power make up 90 percent of our energy pyramid, with renewable energy comprising the “fats, oils, and sweets” tier of the energy pyramid at just 10 percent of energy production. For all the hype we hear about wind and solar, these two sources of energy make up only a tiny fraction of the total energy used in the United States—renewable energy largely consists of hydroelectric. In 2011, wind and solar made up just 1.17 percent and .18 percent of the total energy produced. These two highly subsidized energy sources produced less combined energy than burning wood, which produced 1.98 percent of the nation’s energy.

Additionally, wind and solar wouldn’t produce as much energy as they currently do (which isn’t much) without Renewable Energy Mandates (REMs), direct subsidies to the wind and solar industry, and the Wind Production Tax Credit, which act as artificial sweeteners in the energy market similar to high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame. These artificial sweeteners have cost taxpayers and energy consumers billions of dollars while producing very little benefit, just like the body derives little benefit from loading up on junk food.

Anyone taking an honest look at the energy pyramid can see oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power are indispensible in our everyday lives. They can also see renewable energy systems have a long, long way to go before they can replace conventional fuels. Yet, there are still people who advocate the government force an immediate transition away from the energy sources we all depend on in favor of wind and solar. By advocating doing so, they are proposing we turn the energy pyramid completely upside-down, which obviously would create many more problems than solutions.

Could you suddenly live on less than 2 percent of the total energy you use in your daily life? If so, what would you prioritize? Would you choose heat for your family, keeping the lights on, or having access to clean, running water? Simple things we take for granted every day, such as driving to work, modern medicine, and taking the kids to visit the grandparents for a weekend, would suddenly become unrealistic, and we could no longer have things like Christmas lights on our houses, iPhones in our pockets, and televisions in our living rooms. We’d be too busy just trying to survive.

Of course, we don’t have to make those choices, because we have abundant, affordable energy provided by oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power. These sources of energy power the medical research institutions currently working to find ways to slow the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the water treatment plants providing us with clean drinking water. They improve our lives vastly.

The fuels we consume in the energy pyramid keep our society healthy, just like the foods we consume in the food pyramid make our bodies healthy. We cannot substitute fats and oils for essential grains, fruits, and vegetables and expect to have healthy bodies. Just so, we cannot substitute wind and solar for conventional fuels and expect to have a healthy society.