You are reading Part 1 of 7 in this series. What are Quick Facts?

The production of energy to power homes, transportation systems, and businesses in the United States is increasingly shifting toward renewable sources and away from nonrenewable fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas. When burned to generate energy, fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases that are the leading drivers of climate change. Production and use of energy from renewable sources, or renewables, has climbed gradually since the 1960s and increased significantly starting in the early 2000s. In 2019, more than one tenth of the energy used in the United States came from renewables. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that without policy changes, energy production from renewable sources is on track to nearly double by 2050, placing some renewables — such as solar and wind — among the fastest growing electricity sources overall. With modest policy changes, the renewable energy market could grow even faster. (Years noted throughout are generally the most recent for which the cited statistic is available, as of the date of this update.)

Renewable Energy Sources:

The processes used to generate energy from different renewable sources in the United States affect the environment, economy, and energy grid in unique ways. These costs and benefits, along with local availability and social and policy considerations, influence to what extent and where various sources are produced and used.

What is renewable energy?

  • Types of renewable energy, such as biomass, wind, hydropower, solar, and geothermal, replenish themselves naturally;  producing energy from renewables generally emits much smaller amounts of greenhouse gases— such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases — than are emitted by burning fossil fuels.

How much energy from renewable sources does the United States use?

  • In 2019, about 12% of U.S. energy production relied on renewables. Renewables were mostly used to produce electricity rather than for other kinds of energy uses, such as heating.

  • In 2018, renewable energy accounted for about 17% of U.S. electricity production., (compared to about 26% of global electricity generation).

  • Energy production (or “generation”) does not equal energy consumption, since some energy is traded to other countries and some is stored for later use. Renewable energy made up about 10% of U.S. energy consumption in 2017. By comparison, renewable energy accounted for over 14% of global energy consumption, although these measurements are challenging to pinpoint.

  • In certain states, renewables generate large fractions of electricity. In 2018, 36.4% of electricity generated in Kansas was from wind, and almost 20% of electricity generated in California was from solar.

What is the environmental impact of renewable energy overall?

  • The environmental and public health advantages and disadvantages of energy generation from different sources can be challenging to quantify and compare.

  • Overall, however, research shows that renewable energy generation generally emits much smaller amounts of greenhouse gases than burning fossil fuels. For every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, renewable sources produce in the range of 11 to 230 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent — with most forms of renewable energy at the low end of that range. By contrast, coal and gas produce about 820 and 490, respectively. These values represent both direct emissions that result from energy generation and indirect emissions that result from other processes involved, such as the production of technology used.

  • Increasing production and use of renewables is helping to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but renewable energy remains a relatively small part of the total U.S. energy budget.

  1. The Energy Information Administration (EIA), an independent federal agency, provides an overview of energy in the United States, explains energy sources and uses, and answers common questions about renewables and other forms of energy. It also offers a wealth of data about energy generation and consumption from different sources over time and publishes news and analysis about energy and related policy. The EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020 with projections to 2050 outlines how energy generation and use may change in the future, based on markets and historical trends.

  2. The Business Council for Sustainable Energy’s 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook includes recent information on the U.S. energy sector, such as market details, data on emerging technologies, and historical trends.

  3. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) published the 2018 Renewable Energy Fact Book, which is the most recent edition and includes summary information on the different types of renewable energy sources. The Fact Book was prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which also gives information about each of the major renewable energy sources. The EERE also describes technologies and research in different methods of renewable electricity generation, including solar, geothermal, wind, and water.

  4. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy and the Environment resource delves into the environmental effects of energy systems and provides tools to measure environmental impact.

  5. The International Energy Agency (a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organization) produced the report Global CO2 Emissions in 2019, which provides helpful international context about global energy trends and development. A report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019, breaks down the prices tied to different renewable energy technologies and processes on a global scale.