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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% Note: Sum of components may not equal 100% because of independent rounding. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and 10.1, April 2021, preliminary data

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 1800’s 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 and the percentage shares of total U.S. energy consumption from biofuels, geothermal energy, solar energy, and wind energy increased, and in 2020, the combined percentage share of these renewable energy sources was greater than the combined share of wood and hydro energy.

The consumption of biofuels, geothermal, solar, and wind energy in the United States in 2020 was nearly three times greater than in 2000.

In 2020, renewable energy provided about 11.6 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.

Renewable energy can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using renewable energy can reduce the use of fossil fuels, which are the largest sources of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. renewable energy consumption will continue to increase through 2050.

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Last updated: May 14, 2021