Patterns of Use
While energy is essential to modern society, most primary sources are unsustainable. The current fuel mix is associated with a multitude of environmental impacts, including global climate change, acid rain, freshwater consumption, hazardous air pollution, and radioactive waste. Renewable energy has the potential to meet demand with a much smaller environmental footprint and can help to alleviate other pressing problems, such as energy security, by contributing to a distributed and diversified energy infrastructure. About 80% of the nation’s energy comes from fossil fuels, 8.3% from nuclear, and 11% from renewable sources. Wind is the fastest growing renewable source but contributes only 2.4% of total energy used in the United States.1
U.S. Renewable Energy Consumption: Historic and Projected1,2
U.S. Total and Renewable Energy Consumption by Source, 20181
Major Renewable Sources
- U.S. onshore wind resources have the potential to generate almost 11,000 GW of electricity, 113 times more than the current installed capacity of 97.2GW.4,5
- In 2013, the U.S. installed 1.1 GW of wind capacity, a 92% decrease from 2012.6 This significant drop resulted from the expiration of the federal production tax credit (PTC) in 2013.7 Since 2013, the PTC has been retroactively reinstated with an expiration date of December 31, 2019.8 Over 7.5 GW of wind capacity were installed in the U.S. in 2018, an 8% increase in wind power capacity from 2017.5 Estimates range to almost 400 GW by 2050.9
- Based on the average U.S. electricity fuel mix, a 1 MW wind turbine can displace 1,800 tons of CO2 emissions per year.10 With a wind power capacity of 400 GW, wind could account for 35% of U.S. electricity demand and 12.3 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions could be avoided annually, resulting in a 14% reduction in CO2 emissions when compared to 2013.11
- Wind turbines generate no emissions and use no water when producing electricity, but concerns include bat and bird mortality, land use, noise, and aesthetics.12
Installed Wind Capacity, Top 5 Countries, 20173
- Assuming intermediate efficiency, solar photovoltaic (PV) modules covering 0.6% of U.S. land area could meet national electricity demand.14
- PV module prices have declined, costing $0.65-$0.73/Watt in residential systems.15 U.S. market share of PV production dropped from 30% to 7% between 2000 and 2010.16
- Solar PV installations reached an all-time high of 14,762 MWdc in 2016, increasing by 97% compared to 2015 installations.13 In 2018, 10.6 GWdc of solar photovoltaic capacity was added in the US, which was equal to that installed in 2017, raising total installed capacity to over 60 GW.17 Solar accounted for 30% of new generating capacity in 2017.18
- The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative aims to reduce the price of solar energy 75% by 2020, which is projected to lead to 27% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar and a 28% decrease in electricity sector greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.14
- While solar PV modules produce no emissions during operation, toxic substances (e.g., cadmium and selenium) are used in them.14
U.S. Photovoltaic Installations, 2000-201613
- Wood—mostly as pulp, paper, and paperboard industry waste products—accounts for 46% of total biomass energy consumption. Waste—municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge, tires, and agricultural by-products—accounts for an additional 10%.1
- Biomass has low net CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels. At combustion, it releases CO2 previously removed from the atmosphere. Additional emissions are associated with processing and 124 acres of land are required to generate one GWh of electricity per year.19
- U.S. ethanol production is projected to reach 40 million gallons per day in 2050.2
U.S. Biomass Consumption, 1975-20181
- Hydrothermal resources, i.e., steam and hot water, are available primarily in the western U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii, yet geothermal heat pumps can be used almost anywhere to extract heat from shallow ground, which stays at relatively constant temperatures year-round.21
- Each year, U.S. geothermal power offsets the emission of 4.1 million tons of CO2, 80 thousand tons of nitrogen oxides and 110 thousand tons of particulate matter from coal-powered plants.22 Some geothermal facilities produce solid waste such as salts and minerals that must be disposed of in approved sites, but some by-products can be recovered and recycled.21
- Electricity generated from geothermal power plants is projected to increase from 16.5 billion kWh in 2019 to 65.6 billion kWh in 2050 and has the potential to exceed 500 GW, which is half of the current U.S. capacity.2,23
Geothermal Installed Capacity, Top 5 Countries, 201620
In the U.S., net electricity generation from conventional hydropower peaked in 1997 at 356 TWh/yr. Currently, the U.S. gets about 290 TWh/yr of electricity from hydropower.1,25
While electricity generated from hydropower is virtually emission free, significant levels of methane and CO2 may be emitted through the decomposition of vegetation in the reservoir.26 Other environmental concerns include fish injury and mortality, habitat degradation, and water quality impairment. “Fish-friendly” turbines and smaller dams help mitigate some of these problems.27
Hydropower Electricity Generation, 201724
Advancing Renewable Energy
Encourage Supportive Public Policy
- Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that mandate certain levels of renewable generation are proving successful. For example, Texas installed 10,000 MW of renewable energy generating capacity in 2010, meeting its 2025 mandate 15 years early.28 Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories had renewable portfolio standards or goals in place as of August 2019.29 State standards are projected to support 103,000 MW of renewable electricity by 2025.30
- Renewable energy growth is driven by important federal incentives such as the Investment Tax Credit, which offset upfront costs by 10-30%.31 Tax credits, grants, and other incentives are also offered to the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors for renewable energy installations, some defraying up to 30% of the cost.32
- Eliminating subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy would encourage renewable energy. Congress allocated over $12.3 billion in tax relief to the oil and gas industries for fiscal years 2016-2020.33 Studies estimate that the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability of U.S. nuclear power plants in the case of an accident, amounts to a subsidy of $366 million to $3.5 billion annually.34
- Net metering enables customers to sell excess electricity to the grid, eliminates the need for on-site storage, and provides an incentive for installing renewable energy devices. Thirty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and three U.S. territories have some form of net metering program.35
Engage the Industrial, Residential, and Commercial Sectors
- Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are sold by renewable energy producers in addition to the electricity they produce; for a few cents per kilowatt hour, customers can purchase RECs to “offset” their electricity usage and help renewable energy become more cost competitive.36 Nearly 800 utilities in the U.S. offer consumers the option to purchase renewable energy, or “green power.”37
- Many companies purchase renewable energy as part of their environmental programs. Google, Microsoft, Intel, Equinix, and Wells Fargo were the top five users of renewable energy as of August 2019.38
kWh = kilowatt hour. One kWh is the amount of energy required to light a 100 watt light bulb for 10 hours.
Btu = British Thermal Unit. One Btu is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a pound of water by 1° Fahrenheit.
Quad = quadrillion (1015) Btu. One Quad is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of ten million U.S. households.
- Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2019) Monthly Energy Review August 2019.
- EIA (2019) Annual Energy Outlook 2019.
- Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) (2017) Global Wind Statistics 2017.
- Lopex, A., et al. (2012) U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials A GIS-Based Analysis. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
- American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) (2019) U.S. Wind Industry First Quarter 2019 Market Report.
- American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) (2014) U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report, Year Ending 2013.
- Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) (2014) “Federal Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit.”
- DSIRE (2016) “Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC).”
- Mai, T., et al. (2012) Renewable Electricity Futures Study. NREL.
- U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) (2011) Wind and Water Power Program: Wind Energy Benefits.
- U.S. DOE (2015) Wind Vision Report.
- U.S. DOE (2015) Environmental Impacts and Siting of Wind Projects.
- Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) (2017) Solar Market Insight Report 2016 Year in Review.
- U.S. DOE (2012) SunShot Vision Study.
- NREL (2017) U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System Cost Benchmark: Q1 2017.
- NREL (2011) PV Manufacturing Cost Analysis: U.S. Competitiveness in a Global Industry.
- Solar Power Europe (2019) Global Market Outlook For Solar Power 2019-2023.
- Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) (2018) Solar Industry Research Data
- NREL (2004) “PV FAQs: How much land will PV need to supply our electricity?”
- Geothermal Energy Association (2016) Annual US & Global Geothermal Power Production Report.
- U.S. DOE, EERE, Geothermal Technologies Office (2014) “Geothermal FAQs.”
- U.S. DOE EERE (2018) Geothermal Power Plants - Meeting Clean Air Standards.
- NREL (2014) Accelerating Geothermal Research.
- International Energy Agency (IEA) (2019) Key World Energy Statistics 2019.
- EIA (2012) Annual Energy Review 2011.
- Arntzen, E., et al. (2013) Evaluating greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower complexes on large rivers in Eastern Washington. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
- Kumar, A. and T. Schei (2011) “Hydropower.” Cambridge University Press.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2012) “Renewable Portfolio Standards.”
- National Conference of State Legislatures (2019) “State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals”.
- Union of Concerned Scientists (2013) How Renewable Electricity Standards Deliver Economic Benefits.
- DSIRE (2014) “Federal Business Energy Investment Tax Credit.”
- DSIRE (2018) “Federal Financial Incentives.”
- Joint Committee on Taxation (2017) Estimates of Fed. Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2016-2020.
- Prepared Witness Testimony of Anna Aurilio on Hydroelectric Relicensing and Nuclear Energy before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, June 27 2001.
- DSIRE (2017) USA Summary Maps: Net Metering.
- U.S. DOE, EERE (2016) “Green Power Markets: Renewable Energy Certificates” and “Buying Green Power.” The Green Power Network.
- Personal Communication, Eric O’Shaughnessy, Energy Analyst, NREL, 6/22/17.
- U.S. EPA (2019) “Green Power Partnership: National Top 100.”