You may think renewable energy doesn’t have much impact on your life. But ask yourself this: Have you ever sat around a campfire with friends? Or hung your clothes out on a clothesline? Or even just opened the windows on a spring day to let the sunshine warm up a room?
All these activities use renewable energy. The wood in the campfire, the wind drying your clothes, and the sun warming your home are all renewable energy sources.
As these examples show, renewable energy isn’t just about making electricity. We can draw on natural power sources for all kinds of uses, including heating, cooling, and transportation. And the more we use renewable energy for all these things, the less we have to rely on dirty fossil fuels that damage the climate.
Fossil fuels like oil and gas are the remains of ancient organisms that died millions of years ago. Because they take so long to form, the earth can’t keep making more to replace what we use for energy. They’re nonrenewable—limited energy sources that will eventually run out.
Renewable energy, by contrast, comes from sources that nature produces continuously. Examples include wind, sunlight, moving water, and growing plants. We can tap into these resources for energy without using them up.
Renewable energy is not the same as clean energy. A wood fire is a renewable way to produce heat, but it also creates air pollution. And other energy sources, such as nuclear power, are clean but not renewable. But most energy sources that are eco-friendly are also renewable, and vice versa.
|Common renewable energy sources|
Renewable sources make up a small but growing share of U.S. energy use. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), we rely on them for 12% of our energy and 20% of our electricity. Here’s a closer look at the renewable power sources we use today—and some others we’re just beginning to explore.
Most of the renewable energy we use now comes from just four sources:
Biomass is material drawn from plants—recently living plants, not long-dead ones. Examples include wood, corn, waste products such as paper, and animal manure.
There are several ways to convert these materials into energy. We can burn them for heat or turn them into biofuels for transportation. And we can use them to generate steam that turns turbines for power generation.
Biomass, or bioenergy, made up between 4% and 5% of all U.S. energy use in 2020. Most of this energy came from wood and biofuels. It only made up about 1.4% of U.S. electric generation in 2021.
Hydroelectric energy, or hydropower for short, means using fast-moving water to turn turbines and generate electricity. This was one of the first renewable energy sources used for electricity, and it’s still one of the biggest. In 2021, the U.S. produced over 6% of its electricity, and 2.6% of all its energy, with hydropower.
Like water, wind can be used to turn turbines for power production. Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing power sources in the U.S. In 1990, it provided only 3 billion kilowatts, or 0.1% of the nation’s electricity. By 2020, that number had risen to 380 billion kilowatts, more than 9% of U.S. electricity.
The main form of solar power in the U.S. is photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight directly to electricity. However, sunlight can also be converted to electricity by using its heat to turn water into steam that turns turbines. And it can heat homes via solar space heaters or passive solar design—building houses to maximize the sun’s warmth.
Currently, about 1% of all U.S. energy and less than 3% of our electricity comes from the sun. But solar is growing fast. The EIA says nearly half of new electric plants in 2022 will be solar-powered. And that doesn’t even count electricity from home solar panels.
|Renewable sources with encouraging potential|
There are several other forms of renewable energy that aren’t yet widely used in the U.S. However, they have the potential to make up more of our energy use in the future. These include:
Far below the earth’s surface are pockets of water heated by the planet’s molten mantle. Deep wells can draw this hot water and steam to the surface, where it can provide heat and generate electricity. Currently, heat from geothermal reservoirs produces only 0.024% of the country’s energy. But scientists are exploring new techniques that could make geothermal energy easier to use on a larger scale.
Tidal energy means harnessing the power of ocean tides to turn turbines and generate electricity. Turbines can be placed in natural tidal streams or in artificially built tidal basins and lagoons. However, suitable locations are rare. So far, there are no tidal power plants in the U.S. and only a few elsewhere.
Hydrogen gas can serve as an energy source in multiple ways. It can be burned just like natural gas for heating or to produce electricity. It can also power units called fuel cells, which work like batteries to provide power for transportation and other uses.
There are several ways to produce hydrogen gas, and not all of them are renewable. So-called green hydrogen is produced by using energy from clean sources like wind and solar to break apart water atoms. But hydrogen can also be produced from fossil fuels, a nonrenewable resource.
The nuclear power plants we have today work by nuclear fission. They split atoms apart to release the energy stored in them. Nuclear fusion, by contrast, involves smashing atoms together. Unlike fission, fusion doesn’t require non-renewable uranium or plutonium for fuel. It uses only hydrogen, which is easy to produce from water.
Fusion reactors aren’t actually in use yet. But two experimental reactors are being built now: ITER in France and SPARC in Massachusetts. If they are successful, working power plants could follow soon after.
|Renewable energy pros|
|It won't run out|
|Some forms currently cost less to produce than fossil fuel energy|
|It's low maintenance|
|It pollutes less|
|It has a lower carbon footprint|
|It boosts our energy independence|
|It creates jobs|
|It can make the electric grid more resilient|
Renewable energy has many advantages over fossil fuels. However, the exact benefits vary depending on the energy source. The perks of renewable energy include:
Renewable energy, by definition, can’t be used up. Unlike fossil fuels, energy sources like sun, wind, hydropower, and biomass regenerate themselves. Any energy source that’s renewable can also be sustainable.
When you use renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower, you don’t have to pay for fuel. The only cost is the up-front cost of building the power plants—and that cost has fallen steadily.
Today, wind and solar are cheaper ways to produce electricity than fossil fuels. However, other forms of renewable energy, such as tidal power, remain costly.
One reason wind and solar are so cheap is that maintenance costs are low. Wind turbines and solar panels have fewer moving parts than fuel-burning generators. That makes them easier to maintain, reducing costs.
Burning fossil fuels pollutes the air and water. Most renewable energy sources, by contrast, are non-polluting. Switching from fossil fuels to renewables improves air and water quality, promotes human health, and protects wildlife.
The one exception to this rule is biomass which carries some negatives. Burning wood and other plants produces large amounts of certain pollutants, especially particulates.
Renewable energy also has minimal carbon emissions. Greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change. Switching to low-carbon renewables is absolutely essential if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
Again, this benefit doesn’t always apply to biomass. Burning plants also releases carbon—sometimes more than burning fossil fuels. However, plants also absorb carbon as they grow, balancing out the carbon they produce. That means it’s possible for biomass to be a carbon-neutral energy source.
Although the U.S. is no longer dependent on foreign oil, it’s still tied into the world oil market. When wars or trade disputes reduce oil production overseas, gasoline and heating oil prices soar for U.S. consumers.
With renewable energy, this isn’t a problem. All our solar, wind, hydropower, or geothermal energy is produced right here in the U.S. Problems in other parts of the world can’t affect this energy production or its cost.
Renewable energy creates a lot of jobs, such as building and installing solar panels and wind turbines. In 2019, renewable energy provided jobs for nearly three times as many Americans as fossil fuels, according to Morning Consult.
The wages these jobs pay are well above average and pretty close to the wages for fossil fuel jobs. And they offer better job security because the renewable energy sector doesn’t suffer the same boom-and-bust cycles as fossil fuels.
Renewable energy makes the power grid more reliable. That may seem confusing since power sources like wind and solar don’t function all the time (as discussed below). But the truth is, no power plant runs 24/7. Managing the power grid means putting in power from a variety of different sources to meet demand.
Renewable power plants are more reliable at doing their part than fossil-fuel or nuclear plants. They don’t suffer from fuel shortages, and they don’t shut down as often for maintenance or safety reasons. As Yale Environment 360 reports, countries that use more renewable energy suffer fewer blackouts than countries that use less.
|Renewable energy cons|
|It costs more up front (for now)|
|It's costly to store (for now)|
|It isn't continuous (i.e. solar power needs the sun to be shining)|
|It can't be implemented everywhere|
|While low-carbon, it isn't always zero-carbon (but much better than fossil fuels)|
Despite these advantages, renewable energy is still only a small part of our nation’s energy use. Several problems have kept it from being more widely used. Fortunately, there are already ways to address many of these challenges, and scientists continue to seek new solutions.
Renewable power plants often cost more to build than fossil-fuel or nuclear plants. For sources like wind and solar, the reduced operating costs balance out this downside. And in fact, building new wind or solar farms recently became cheaper than operating existing fossil fuel plants. But newer power sources like tidal energy need more research to make them cost-effective.
Many renewable energy sources are intermittent. For instance, wind and solar energy only work when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. The solution to this problem is to include a mix of renewable energy in the grid. That way, one power source can take over when another shuts down. And energy sources like biomass, geothermal energy, and hydrogen can be used at any time.
Another way to deal with intermittent power is to store up energy for later use. Energy storage can include batteries, fuel cells, water tanks that store heat, and water pumped uphill to release later. However, these technologies can be costly.
Fortunately, energy storage is improving all the time. As Ars Technica reports, the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries has grown by about 50% in the last decade. At the same time, their prices have fallen more than 85%.
Some forms of renewable energy only work in certain locations. Solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, and tidal power all require a suitable site to work. Fortunately, sites that can’t use one power source, such as wind, can often use another, such as solar. And biomass and hydrogen work just about anywhere.
Although renewable energy is low-carbon, it isn’t zero-carbon. The factories that build devices like solar panels and wind turbines, and the trucks that transport them, often rely on fossil fuels. These problems will gradually diminish as the U.S. depends more on clean electricity.
Some renewable power sources can also harm wildlife. For instance, wind turbines can kill birds and bats. And dams used for hydropower and tidal power can impede the movement of sea creatures. Scientists keep working on ways to improve renewable energy sources and reduce these harms.
Renewable energy isn’t perfect. But the benefits, especially for the climate, clearly outweigh the cost.
Although ramping up renewable energy costs money, the cost of massive climate change would be much higher. A warming planet would bring catastrophic storms, floods, droughts, and fires. A 2022 study in Nature (via Treehugger) concluded that these disasters would cost the world at least $150 trillion more than meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.
Renewable energy can save us money in the short term, too. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), more than 60% of new renewable energy sources in 2020 cost less than the cheapest new fossil fuel sources. That’s twice as high as the percentage for 2019. In other words, renewables are already cheaper on average than fossil fuels, and their lead is widening.
Transitioning our whole society from dirty fossil fuels to renewables is a big job. It’s going to take a lot of effort from everyone, including business and political leaders. But there are many ways for you as an individual to play a small part in this big movement. For example, you can support renewable energy use by:
Wondering how community solar works? It's an easy way for you to support clean energy generation in your state and save money on your electricity costs—no rooftop panels required. Perch will help match you to a local solar farm—you’ll support the operations of that farm so that it can generate and contribute as much clean, solar energy to the overall grid. You don’t directly receive electricity from the solar power you’re supporting, but thanks to government incentives, you’ll get credits toward your own utility bill. Essentially, you’re being rewarded with discounts on your own electricity because you’re enabling solar generation and development in your state! It's a win, win. See if there's a solar farm in your area.
When you take these actions, you’re helping to build a renewable energy future. And with many of these options, you can also reap the benefits of lower energy costs today.