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 78% of the nation’s energy comes from fossil fuels, 8.9% from nuclear, and 12.5% from renewable sources. In 2019, renewables surpassed coal in the amount of energy provided to the U.S. and continued this trend in 2020. Wind and solar are the fastest growing renewable sources, but contribute just 4.6% of total energy used in the U.S.1
U.S. Renewable Energy Consumption: Historic and Projected1,2
U.S. Total and Renewable Energy Consumption by Source, 20201
Major Renewable Sources
- U.S. onshore wind resources have a potential capacity of almost 11,000 GW and current installed capacity of 117.7 GW.3,4 Offshore wind resources are potentially 4,200 GW, current capacity is 42 MW, and the development pipeline contained over 28 GW of projects in 2019.4,5,6
- Over 16 GW of wind capacity was installed in the U.S. in 2020, a 85% increase from 2019.7
- The federal production tax credit (PTC) significantly influences wind development, but cycles of enactment and expiration lead to year-to-year changes in investment.8 In 2020, the PTC was extended to allow wind projects beginning construction in 2020 or 2021 a PTC at 1.5¢/kWh for 10 years of electricity output.9
- Based on the average U.S. electricity fuel mix, a 2.42 MW wind turbine (U.S. average in 2018) can displace 4,807 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.10 By 2050, 404 GW of wind capacity would meet an estimated 35% of U.S. electricity demand and result in 12.3 gigatonnes of avoided CO2 emissions, a 14% reduction 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, 20203
- 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 to $0.52-$0.61/Watt in residential systems.15 The U.S. manufactured 1% of PV cells and 3% of PV modules globally in 2019.16
- In 2020, a new record high of over 19.2 GW of solar photovoltaic capacity was added in the U.S., raising total installed capacity to over 97 GW.13 Solar accounted for 43% of new generating capacity in 2020.13
- The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative aims to reduce the price of solar energy 50% by 2030, which is projected to lead to 33% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar and a 18% decrease in electricity sector greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.17
- While solar PV modules produce no emissions during operation, toxic substances (e.g., cadmium and selenium) are used in some technologies.14
U.S. Photovoltaic Installations, 2011-202013
- 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 9%.1
- Biomass has low net CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels. At combustion, it releases CO2 previously removed from the atmosphere. Further emissions are associated with processing and growth of biomass, which can require large areas of land. Willow biomass requires 121 acres of land to generate one GWh of electricity per year, more land than other renewable sources.18
- U.S. ethanol production is projected to reach 50 million gallons per day in 2050.2
U.S. Biomass Consumption, 1975-20201
- 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.20
- Each year, electricity from hydrothermal sources 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.21 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.20
- Electricity generated from geothermal power plants is projected to increase from 15.6 billion kWh in 2020 to 49.8 billion kWh in 2050. Geothermal electricity generation has the potential to exceed 500 GW, which is half of the current U.S. capacity.2,22
Geothermal Installed Capacity, Top 5 Countries, 202019
- In the U.S., net electricity generation from conventional hydropower peaked in 1997 at 356 TWh/yr. Currently, the U.S. gets about 291 TWh/yr of electricity from hydropower.1
- 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.24 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.25
Hydropower Electricity Generation, 201823
Advancing Renewable Energy
Encourage Supportive Public Policy
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that 45% of renewable energy growth in the U.S. can be attributed to state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that require a percentage of electricity be derived from renewable sources.26 Clean Energy Standards (CES) that mandate certain levels of carbon-free generation can include some non-renewables such as nuclear fuels.27 Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories had renewable portfolio standards or goals in place as of April 2021.28 State standards are projected to support an additional 90 GW of renewable electricity projects by 2030.26
- Renewable energy growth is also driven by important federal incentives such as the Investment Tax Credit, which offsets upfront costs by 10-30%, as well as state incentives such as tax credits, grants, and rebates.29
- Eliminating subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy would encourage renewable energy. Congress allocated over $5.7 billion in tax relief to the oil and gas industries for fiscal years 2020-2024.30 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.31
- 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. Forty states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories have some form of net metering program.32
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.33 Around 850 utilities in the U.S. offer consumers the option to purchase renewable energy, or “green power.”34
- Many companies purchase renewable energy as part of their environmental programs. Google, Microsoft, Intel, Walmart, and Equinix were the top five users of renewable energy as of August 2020.35
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.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2021) Monthly Energy Review May 2021.
- U.S. EIA (2021) Annual Energy Outlook 2021.
- International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) (2021) Renewable Capacity Statistics 2021.
- Lopez, A., et al. (2012) U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials A GIS-Based Analysis. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
- U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (2021) State Activities.
- Musial, W., et al. (2020) 2019 Offshore Wind Technology Data Update. NREL.
- American Clean Power (ACP) (2021) ACP Market Report Fourth Quarter 2020
- NREL (2014) Implications of a PTC Extension on U.S. Wind Deployment.
- DSIRE (2021) “Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC).”
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2021) Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator - Calculations and References.
- U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) (2015) Wind Vision Report.
- U.S. DOE (2021) Environmental Impacts and Siting of Wind Projects.
- Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) (2021) “Solar Industry Research Data.”
- U.S. DOE (2012) SunShot Vision Study.
- NREL (2021) U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System Cost Benchmark: Q1 2020.
- International Energy Agency (IEA) (2020) Trends in Photovoltaic Applications 2020.
- NREL (2017) SunShot 2030 for Photovoltaics (PV): Envisioning a Low-cost PV Future.
- Keoleian, G. and T. Volk (2005) Renewable Energy from Willow Biomass Crops: Life Cycle Energy, Environmental and Economic Performance”
- IRENA (2021) Dashboard - Capacity and Generation.
- U.S. DOE, EERE (2020) “Geothermal FAQs.”
- U.S. DOE EERE (2018) Geothermal Power Plants - Meeting Clean Air Standards.
- NREL (2014) Accelerating Geothermal Research.
- IEA (2020) Key World Energy Statistics 2020.
- 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.
- Barbose, G. (2021) U.S. Renewables Portfolio Standards 2021 Status Update: Early Release.
- Congressional Research Service (2020) Electricity Portfolio Standards: Background, Design Elements, and Policy Considerations.
- National Conference of State Legislatures (2021) State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals.
- DSIRE (2021) “Business Energy Investment Tax Credit.”
- Joint Committee on Taxation (2020) Estimates of Fed. Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2020-2024.
- Prepared Witness Testimony of Anna Aurilio on Hydroelectric Relicensing and Nuclear Energy before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, June 27 2001.
- DSIRE (2020) USA Summary Maps: Net Metering.
- NREL (2020) “Buying Green Power and Renewable Energy Certificates.”
- U.S. EPA (2018) “Utility Green Power Products.”
- U.S. EPA (2021) “Green Power Partnership National Top 100.”