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Use of energy explained Energy use for transportation

The United States is a nation on the move. About 26% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2020 was for transporting people and goods from one place to another.

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Different types of energy sources (or fuels) are used for transportation in the United States

The major types of energy used for transportation in the United States are:

  • Petroleum products—products made from crude oil and from natural gas processing, including gasoline, distillate fuels (mostly diesel fuel), jet fuel, residual fuel oil, and propane
  • Biofuels—ethanol and biomass-based diesel/distillates
  • Natural gas
  • Electricity (produced from many different energy sources)

Energy sources are used in several major ways

  • Gasoline is used in cars, motorcycles, light trucks, and boats. Aviation gasoline is used in many types of airplanes.
  • Distillate fuels are used mainly by trucks, buses, and trains and in boats and ships.
  • Jet fuel is used in jet airplanes and some types of helicopters.
  • Residual fuel oil is used in ships.
  • Biofuels are added to gasoline and diesel fuel.
  • Natural gas, as compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas, is used in cars, buses, trucks, and ships. Most of the vehicles that use natural gas are in government and private vehicle fleets.
  • Natural gas is also used to operate compressors to move natural gas in pipelines.
  • Propane (a hydrocarbon gas liquid) is used in cars, buses, and trucks. Most of the vehicles that use propane are in government and private vehicle fleets.
  • Electricity is used by public mass transit systems and by electric vehicles.

Petroleum is the main source of energy for transportation

In 2020, petroleum products accounted for about 90% of the total U.S. transportation sector energy use. Biofuels, such as ethanol and biomass-based diesel/distillates, contributed about 5%. Natural gas accounted for about 3%, most of which was used in natural gas pipeline compressors. Electricity provided less than 1% of total transportation sector energy use and nearly all of that in mass transit systems.

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Gasoline is the most commonly used U.S. transportation fuel

Gasoline is the dominant transportation fuel in the United States, followed by distillate fuels (mostly diesel fuel) and jet fuel. Gasoline includes aviation gasoline and motor gasoline. Finished motor gasoline includes petroleum gasoline and fuel ethanol. Fuel ethanol includes ethanol (a biofuel) and petroleum denaturants. On an energy content basis, finished motor gasoline accounted for 62% of total U.S. transportation energy use in 2020, while distillate fuels, mostly diesel, accounted for 24%, and jet fuel accounted for 10%.

Biofuels are added to petroleum fuels

Ethanol and biodiesel were actually some of the first fuels for automobiles but were replaced by gasoline and diesel fuel made from crude oil. Today, most of finished motor gasoline contains up to 10% ethanol by volume. Most of biomass-based diesel consumption is in blends with petroleum diesel. In 2020, total biofuels consumption accounted for about 5% of total U.S. transportation sector energy consumption, with ethanol's share at about 4% and biodiesel’s and renewable diesel’s combined share at about 1%.

Last updated: May 17, 2021