U.S. Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century

The question of how U.S. energy supply and use—which account for over 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—will evolve over the next several decades is critical to developing sound U.S. climate policy. To answer this question, the Pew Center convened two workshops, including members of its Business Environmental Leadership Council and independent experts, to envision and analyze future energy scenarios for the United States, and to assess the implications of these scenarios for U.S. carbon emissions. The scenarios are:

  • Awash in Oil and Gas, in which oil and gas are cheap, abundant, and reliably available;
  • Technology Triumphs, in which the commercialization of climate-friendly energy technologies is accelerated through a combination of state policy, technological breakthroughs, public and private investment, and consumer interest; and
  • Turbulent World, in which supply disruptions and energy security concerns lead to aggressive federal energy policy promoting domestic, low-risk resources.

Climate policy was deliberately excluded from these “base case” scenarios.

Carbon emissions increase under all these scenarios. This points to the need for a mandatory carbon policy under a broad range of energy futures. Carbon emissions increased much more under Awash in Oil and Gas than in the other two scenarios. This draws attention to the importance of climate-friendly energy technologies and climate-friendly energy policies in moving us toward a low-carbon future.

When a hypothetical mandatory climate policy was imposed on all three scenarios, it was most difficult to achieve under Awash in Oil and Gas, of medium difficulty in Turbulent World, and easiest in Technology Triumphs. This range of difficulty is due to fundamental differences in the base case scenarios. But the unmistakable conclusion is that under all scenarios, a mandatory carbon policy is necessary.

In the course of the analysis, the Pew Center and the Global Business Network also developed technology assessments revealing that a number of emerging technologies—such as carbon capture and geological sequestration, distributed generation, hybrid-electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cells—have the potential to yield multiple economic, environmental, and energy security benefits.

This report explores what might happen to U.S. energy supply and use in the future; the Pew Center plans to turn next to an exploration of what ought to happen. We will use these scenarios to test policy and technology options and identify those that are robust across a broad range of plausible futures. We hope that readers will join us in developing a shared national vision of policies, strategies, and investments that will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and promote U.S. energy security while maintaining economic growth.

The Pew Center would like to thank Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and William Chandler of Batelle Memorial Institute for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this report, Skip Laitner for his advice on and review of the modeling analysis, and the Energy Foundation for its generous support of this project.

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