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Use of energy explained  

How the United States uses energy

Americans use a lot of energy in homes, in businesses, and in industry, and to travel and transport goods. There are four end-use sectors that purchase or produce energy for their own consumption and not for resale:

  • The residential sector includes homes and apartments.
  • The commercial sector includes offices, malls, stores, schools, hospitals, hotels, warehouses, restaurants, and places of worship and public assembly.
  • The industrial sector includes facilities and equipment used for manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and construction.
  • The transportation sector includes vehicles that transport people or goods, such as cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, trains, aircraft, boats, barges, and ships.

These end-use sectors consume primary energy and also purchase and use most of the electricity (a secondary energy source) the electric power sector produces and sells. The electric power sector consumes primary energy to generate electricity for sale to the other four sectors and for export to Canada and Mexico. The end-use sectors also produce some electricity for their own use, which in the industrial and commercial sectors is called direct use.

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Total energy consumption in the end-use sectors includes their primary energy use, purchased electricity, and electrical system energy losses (energy conversion and other losses associated with the generation, transmission, and distribution of purchased electricity) and other energy losses. Total electrical system energy losses are apportioned to each end-use sector according to each sector's share of total annual U.S. electricity purchases.

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Total U.S. energy consumption reached a record high of about 101 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) in 2018. Consumption was about 1% lower in 2019. In 2020, total U.S. energy consumption was about 93 quads, a decrease of about 7% from 2019. This was the largest annual decrease in U.S. energy consumption in both percentage and absolute terms since at least 1949. Much of the decrease is attributable to economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in the United States during the spring of 2020. Energy use by each of the energy consuming sectors was lower in 2020, with the transportation sector experiencing the largest annual drop in energy consumption of about 15%.

Before 2020, the largest recorded annual decrease in U.S. energy consumption occurred between 2008 and 2009, when consumption decreased by 5% during the economic recession. Other large annual decreases in U.S. energy consumption occurred during economic recessions in the early 1980s and in 2001.

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Total U.S. energy consumption has increased, but energy consumption per capita has decreased

While total annual U.S. energy consumption has trended upward over time and the U.S. population has increased, the amount of energy consumption per capita (per person) peaked in the late 1970s. Annual per capita energy consumption was relatively flat from the late-1980s through 2000, and generally decreased each year since then. In 2020, U.S. per capita energy consumption dropped to the lowest level since 1965, mainly because of economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Factors contributing to lower U.S. per capita energy consumption since the 1980s include:

  • Increases in efficiency of appliances, electrical equipment, and building insulation largely resulting from the establishment of energy efficiency standards and improved building energy codes
  • Increases in the average fuel efficiency of vehicles resulting from the establishment of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards
  • Availability of financial incentives for energy efficiency investments
  • Increases in utility-scale electricity generation with higher efficiency natural gas-fired combined-cycle and combined-heat-and-power generators
  • Reduction in the energy intensive production of metals and other manufacturing
  • Increases in population in warmer climate regions of the country greater than population increases in colder climate regions resulting in lower heating energy consumption and lower total residential and commercial sector energy use

U.S. energy consumption per dollar of GDP declined nearly every year since 1949

Along with per capita energy consumption, another measure of the intensity of energy consumption is how efficiently the economy uses energy to produce every dollar of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The amount of U.S. energy consumption per real 2012 dollar of GDP—the value adjusted to account for changes in the value of the U.S. dollar—declined in most years between 1949 and 2020. Although growth of U.S. energy consumption is closely tied to growth in GDP and other economic factors, it is partially offset by improvements in energy efficiency and other changes in the economy that result in lower energy use per unit of economic output. Many of the factors that contribute to lower per capita energy consumption also contribute to lower energy consumption per dollar of GDP.

Last updated: May 14, 2021