You’ve probably read renewable energy will power the future, but it’s still only about 17% of total electricity generation in the US. Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are still 63%. Wind is about 7%, and solar is only about 2% in the US.
We have a long way to go. So I took a look at where we are now in the U.S., what the future may hold globally, and why some environmentalists are asking the world to re-consider nuclear energy as an alternative to renewables.
U.S. electricity generation by energy source in 2017
Hydropower generated 7.4% of the electricity in the United States. One example of hydropower comes from Washington State where 75% of the state’s electricity came from The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.
Wind turbines produced 6.3% of electricity in the United States in 2017. Most wind power came from a few states like Texas, Iowa, and California. Onshore wind power could produce 21.6%, and offshore wind power could generate 4%, of the world’s electricity by 2050 according to Drawdown.org.
Utility-scale solar energy produced 1.3% of U.S. electricity in 2017, which is about 53 billion kWh of electricity.
Rooftop and small-scale solar systems produced .59%, which is about 24 billion kWh of electricity in the U.S.
Utility-scale solar could become 10%, and rooftop solar 7% of total global electricity generation by 2050 according to Drawdown.org.
Geothermal was about .4% of electricity in the United States in 2017. Drawdown.org estimates it could become 4.9% of electricity generation globally by 2050.
Biomass and other sources
Biomass like burning wood and landfill methane were about 1.6% of electricity in the US in 2017. They’re usually considered regrettable alternatives because using trees and landfill for energy isn’t exactly sustainable.
Can we power the United States with today’s renewable energy sources?
Renewable energy can supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation by 2050 according to the Renewable Electricity Futures Study by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). However, the study also included nuclear, efficient natural gas, “clean coal”, and energy efficiency as part of that energy mix. Variable wind and solar photovoltaic generation would supply 50%. The report did not take into account new improvements in technology since 2010, but it did assume a more flexible electricity grid would be developed.
Can the world run on 100% renewable energy?
A more recent study interviewed 114 energy experts about the “12 great debates” surrounding the future of renewable energy. The study by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century1 doesn’t offer conclusive answers about the future of renewable energy. However, it does show that even the experts aren’t in agreement about what the future will bring.
Highlights from the Future of Renewable report
Nuclear energy was 20% of the electricity mix in the US in 2017. It does not contribute to climate change and is considered a carbon-free source of energy. Since renewable energy may not be able to generate 100% of the energy the world needs, prominent environmentalists and thought leaders have been speaking up about the role nuclear energy may need to play.
few perspectives on nuclear power to consider
“Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate– Bill Gates
change,because it is the only carbon-free, scalableenergy source that’s available 24 hours a day. The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation. The United States is uniquely suited to create these advances with its world-class scientists, entrepreneurs, and investment capital.”
“The world probably can’t solve climate change without nuclear power.”– Eric Holthaus, meteorologist and Grist columnist.
“Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future. Nuclear energy is both expensive and dangerous, and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn’t mean it’s clean. Renewable energy is better for the environment, the economy, and doesn’t come with the risk of a nuclear meltdown.”– Greenpeace
“At Project Drawdown, we consider nuclear a regrets solution. It has potential to avoid emissions, but there are many reasons for concern: deadly meltdowns, tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, radioactive waste, illicit plutonium trafficking, and thefts of missile material, among them.”– Drawdown.org
Nuclear scares me. It makes me think of Chernobyl and Hiroshima, and that’s terrifying. But climate change is happening fast and 100% renewable energy may not be realistic in the near future, so I’ll leave you with this TED talk by environmentalist Michael Shellenberger.