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Renewable energy explained  

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy from sources that are naturally replenishing but flow-limited; renewable resources are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time.

The major types of renewable energy sources are:

U.S. primary energy consumption by energy source, 2020 total = 92.94 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) total = 11.59 quadrillion Btu 2% - geothermal 11% - solar 26% - wind 4% - biomass waste 17% - biofuels 18% - wood 22% - hydroelectric biomass 39% renewable energy 12% natural gas 34% petroleum 35% nuclear electric power 9% coal 10% Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and 10.1, April 2021, preliminary data Note: Sum of components may not equal 100% because of independent rounding.

What role does renewable energy play in the United States?

Until the mid-1800s, wood was the source of nearly all of the nation's energy needs for heating, cooking, and lighting. From the late 1800s until today, fossil fuels—coal, petroleum, and natural gas—have been the major sources of energy. Hydropower and wood were the most used renewable energy resources until the 1990s. Since then, the amounts of U.S. energy consumption from biofuels, geothermal energy, solar energy, and wind energy have increased. Total U.S. renewable energy production and consumption reached record highs in 2020.

In 2020, renewable energy provided about 11.59 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu)—1 quadrillion is the number 1 followed by 15 zeros—equal to 12% of total U.S. energy consumption. The electric power sector accounted for about 60% of total U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2020, and about 20% of total U.S. electricity generation was from renewable energy sources.

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Renewable energy can play an important role in U.S. energy security and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using renewable energy can help to reduce energy imports and reduce fossil fuel use, which is the largest source of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. In the Annual Energy Outlook 2021 Reference case, EIA projects that U.S. renewable energy consumption will continue to increase through 2050. The Reference case generally assumes that current laws and regulations that affect the energy sector, including laws that have end dates, remain unchanged throughout the projection period. The potential effects of proposed legislation, regulations, or standards are not included in the AEO2021.

Last updated: May 20, 2021