With the push for green energy being decades old, it begs the question, how far have we come? How many people are using green energy, and what is the impact? Considering that global warming and climate change are still very much on the radar, it seems probable that green energy has not yet solved those problems. So how close are we, and how many people need to use green energy to make a difference?
Electricity Statistics in the United States
Let’s look at a few statistics about the current state of energy production in the United States to get an idea of where we’re presently at.
- In 2020, the U.S. produced four trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity at utility-scale electricity generation facilities.
- 60% was from fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, petroleum), 20% was from nuclear, 20% was from renewable sources.
- Small-scale solar systems produced an additional 42 billion kWh of electricity.
- Wind is the most utilized source of renewable energy with 8.4%, followed by hydropower at 7.3%, solar at 2.3%, biomass at 1.4%, and geothermal contributing 0.4%.
- According to the United States Department of Energy, wind energy will likely account for 35% of electricity production by 2050.
- The International Energy Agency estimates that solar will make up 25% of the energy market by 2050.
What Is Green Energy?
Green energy is any electricity produced from natural resources. Solar (sunlight), hydropower, geothermal, and biomass are the most common types of green energy produced in the United States.
What Are the Different Types of Green Energy?
There are several ways by which we currently produce green energy. Each has its advantages and situations for where it’s most appropriate.
Hydropower is one of our most long-used forms of green energy, existing in one form or another for thousands of years. Hydropower works by converting the flow of water into electricity, and it’s the most efficient way to produce electricity. Today’s hydro turbines convert about 90% of the potential energy into electricity. It accounts for about 7% of the electricity production in the United States.1
One of the most popular forms of green energy, mainly because people can take advantage of it personally and install solar panels to power their own homes, is solar energy. Solar energy is produced by capturing and converting photons from sunlight into electricity. Sunlight is the most abundant source of potential energy — if you could catch it all, one hour of sunlight could provide the earth with enough electricity to last a year. Combine that with the fact that the cost of solar panels dropped more than 75%2 since 2015, and it’s easy to see why solar has risen steadily in stature. However, it only accounts for a little over 2% of the electricity generation in the United States.3
Second only to solar panels, images of large, expansive fields with towering wind turbines have almost become the de facto icon of green energy. As the wind blows, the blades on the turbines spin and generate electricity — a lot of it. In fact, in one month, a single turbine will produce enough electricity to power 460 homes.4 All total, in 2020, wind turbines accounted for a little over 8% of the total electricity production in the United States.5
Geothermal energy does not get as much attention in the headlines as other forms of green energy because geothermal plants must be built where they can tap into high-heat sources in the earth. Although the United States generates the most geothermal electricity, it barely accounts for half a percent of our net electricity generation.
Biomass is another form of electricity that’s produced by the conversion of heat. However, instead of the heat coming from the earth, it comes from burning natural, manufacturing byproducts like wood, animal manure, and corn from ethanol production. Although it provides a means of disposal for these materials, biomass only accounts for about 2% of the electricity produced in the United States.6
What Are the Benefits of Green Energy?
The benefits of green energy are suggested by its very name, in that green energy is better for the environment. This benefit is two-fold. First, the production of green energy does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In fact, most green energy is collected passively. Sunlight hits the solar panels and produces energy. Wind turns the windmill and generates electricity. Water spins the turbine, and well, you get the idea.
The other major advantage of green energy is that it’s renewable and won’t run out. The wind will always blow, water will always flow, and the sun is always going to shine. At least in all of our lifetimes. The amount of electricity that any of these methods can generate is only limited by our aggressiveness in maximizing the utilization potential.
What Are the Disadvantages of Green Energy?
The potential electricity produced is seemingly limitless, and it also sounds like the absolute perfect solution to the world’s climate crisis, right? So then why isn’t the utilization of green energy higher? Why does only about 20% of the United States’ energy come from renewable sources compared to 60% from fossil fuels?
Fossil Fuels Have a Head Start on Infrastructure
Perhaps the biggest factor that keeps green energy in the backseat compared to fossil fuels is simply that the infrastructure to generate and distribute the two is not equal. There are simply more drilling sites and pipelines in place for oil than there are solar fields, and this is largely because fossil fuels had a headstart on renewable energy. As efficiency improves and costs drop, future investments will continue to trend toward green energy initiatives.
Initial Investment and Startup Costs
Renewable energy is cheaper in the long run, and the costs of green energy production have been dropping steadily, but the initial cash outlay to build wind farms, solar fields, or hydroelectric power stations is enormous, resulting in their construction being a slow-moving process. Additionally, and often overlooked, is the storage costs of green energy. If it’s not stored in batteries or immediately used, it’s lost. The costs of batteries, such as when installing a solar panel system at home, may make up as much as 40% of the equipment investment. The same is true for systems of a public utility-scale.
Intermittent Source of Energy
On a large scale, renewable energy doesn’t run out. However, on a day-to-day basis, some sources of green energy, specifically solar and wind, are referred to as variable renewable energy or intermittent renewable energy sources. Meaning, in the most simple terms, that the sun doesn’t shine at night and sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. This affects the consistency at which those sources of green energy can be produced, and it also means that in order to have electricity during those periods of less production, electricity must be stored in batteries. Battery technology is still evolving and only time will tell how much we will be able to rely on energy storage from wind and solar.
How Many People Use Green Energy?
The “disadvantages” of green energy are less like disadvantages and more like challenges for which solutions are still being engineered. The fact is that green energy is very much in swing with a lot of momentum in place. In fact, in 2020, renewable energy accounted for about 12% of the energy consumed in the United States and about 20% of electricity generated.7
On a global scale, it’s worth noting that the fourth quarter of 2020 brought with it a massive spike in available renewable power as the United States added 19 gigawatts, a dramatic rise over the 13.7 added during the same quarter in 2019.8
How Many People Need to Use Green Energy to Make a Difference?
According to the Federation of American Scientists, making the transition to renewable energy sources and using fewer fossil fuels is an effective strategy to reduce the consequences of climate change.9 The question is, how widespread does its use need to be in order to tip the scales on the effects of global warming and climate change? The answer is that while we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. The International Renewable Energy Agency sums it up when they say that,
“Avoiding the worst effects of global warming will require us to source at least 85% of global power from renewables, with a minimum of two-thirds of total energy from renewable sources – wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, bioenergy, and the burgeoning tidal technology – by 2050.”
In other words, the use of green energy needs to double multiple times over in order to correct the course we’re on.
The Outlook Is Positive
It’s easy to look at that figure with a glass-half-empty perspective but, in the report, the agency actually describes an outlook that isn’t so bleak. First off, renewable energy sources are the ticket to stabilizing our climate situation. There isn’t another solution that will matter as much — this is it. The financials have also begun to make enough sense that there’s value in business for renewable energy, and that’s reflected by the upward global trend in its utilization.
We All Need to Push for Green Energy
When we as individuals look at climate change, it’s a problem that seems completely insurmountable. And it is if we try to go it alone. No one person can solve it themselves — this is very much a group effort that requires every single one of us to get on the right side and both use and advocate for green energy. In addition to taking steps to be more energy-efficient, exercise your strength as a consumer and support the companies that actively seek to implement green energy use as part of their overall mission. Make sure that your own electricity use comes from green sources, like the 100% solar-powered plans we offer at Chariot. Producing positive outcomes tomorrow starts with making smart choices today.