How much U.S. electricity is generated from renewable energy?

Last Updated: June 12, 2015

U.S. power plants used renewable energy sources, including water (hydroelectric), wind, biomass wood and waste, geothermal, and solar, to generate about 13% of the electricity produced in the United States during 2014.

Sources of Renewable Electricity Generation, 2013; chart shaped like an outlet. Renewables are 13% of generation. Renewable breakout: hydropower, 52%; wind, 32%; biomass wood, 8%; biomass waste, 4%; geothermal, 3%; solar, 2%.

Most renewable-generated electricity is from hydropower

The largest share of electricity generated by renewable sources in 2014 came from hydroelectric power (48%), followed by wind (34%), biomass wood (8%), biomass waste (4%), geothermal (3%), and solar (3%). However, 2014 was the first year that solar, wind, and other nonhydro renewable energy sources combined to generate more electricity on an annual basis than the amount generated by hydropower.

Electricity generation from renewable sources is largely determined by generation capacity and the availability of the resource. As a result, the history of electricity generation provided by each renewable energy source in the United States has been slightly different.

  • Almost all hydroelectric capacity was built before the mid-1970s, and much of it is located at dams operated by federal agencies.
  • Biomass waste is mostly municipal solid waste that is burned in waste-to-energy power plants.
  • Most electricity generation from wood biomass occurs at lumber and paper mills. These facilities use wood waste to provide much of their own steam and electricity needs.
  • The amount of electricity generated by wind has increased substantially in the past decade. This increase is largely attributed to the availability of federal financial incentives and renewable portfolio standards mandated by state governments.
  • Unlike other sources of renewable electricity generation, a significant amount of solar generation has occurred at small-scale installations. According to the Annual Energy Outlook 2015, electricity generation from these small solar installations (often located on private rooftops) in 2014 is estimated to be about 11 billion kilowatthours.1
  • The contribution of renewable energy sources to electricity generation in each state has evolved differently. See related articles—Today in Energy: March 24, 2015; July 31, 2014; September 8, 2014; April 18, 2014; February 20, 2014; September 23, 2013; December 11, 2013; December 2, 2013; May 2, 2012; and May 3, 2012.

The availability of renewable resources can vary

The amount of electricity generated by hydroelectric sources increases and decreases on an annual basis. This variation occurs primarily because of changes in rainfall and because of the amount of snowfall or melting snow in watersheds where hydroelectric dams are located. Like hydroelectric power, the amount of electricity generated from wind and solar resources can fluctuate as a result of daily and seasonal patterns associated with these energy sources. Electricity generation from biomass (wood and waste) and geothermal energy is normally consistent because the availability of these resources is generally steady.

The United States is second worldwide in renewable electricity generation

China leads the world in the total amount of electricity generated from renewable sources, largely because of recent capacity additions provided by increased hydroelectric power generation. China is followed by the United States, Brazil, and Canada in the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources. Although China leads all nations in the total amount of electricity generated from renewable sources, the United States produces the most electricity from nonhydroelectric renewable sources.

Certain policies aim to increase renewable energy use

There are three types of policies typically used in the United States to increase the use of renewable energy sources:

  1. Financial incentives. The Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit, a federal incentive, has encouraged increased electricity generation from wind and other eligible renewable sources. States also offer financial incentives, such as grants, loans, rebates, and tax credits, to support renewable energy development.
  2. Targets. As of May 2015, 29 states and the District of Columbia had implemented enforceable Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). These standards require electricity providers to generate, or acquire, a certain portion of their power supplies from renewable sources. Many RPS programs have escape clauses if renewable generation exceeds a specific cost threshold. Eight states had voluntary goals for boosting renewable energy generation. See related article—Portfolio Standards.
  3. Markets. Renewable Energy Certificates/Credits (RECs) allow residential consumers and businesses to pay for renewable generation without the need for physical or contractual delivery of electricity generated from qualifying renewable energy sources. (Detailed information on federal and state renewable energy policies is available from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.)

Footnotes

1See Generation of Solar Photovoltaic under End-Use Sectors in Appendix Table A16 of the Annual Energy Outlook.

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Did you know?

Electricity generation from wind increased from about 6 billion kilowatthours in 2000 to almost 182 billion kilowatthours in 2014. This increase was largely driven by improved technologies, reduced cost of electricity production from wind, and government policies that encouraged the development of renewable energy sources.

Hydropower has historically been the dominant renewable energy source. But capacity in wind, solar, and other nonhydro renewable sources has increased so much in recent years that nonhydro renewable electricity generation exceeded hydropower generation for the first time in 2014. Lower than historical average precipitation levels also contributed to lower hydroelectricity generation.

Hydropower provided less electricity in the United States than all other renewable sources combined for the first time in 2014.

Electricity generation from nonhydropower renewables has more than quadrupled since 1990.

Renewable Portfolio Standards require electricity providers to generate or acquire a percentage of power supplies from renewable sources.

Map of states with RPS in 2011. 30 states have renewable portfolio standards and 7 have goals. Source: Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, http://www.dsireusa.org/.