Providing Affordable Clean Energy for All in the US
The U.S. makes up roughly 4% of the world population but consumes close to 17% of the world's energy (EIA), and produces 15% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions (University of Michigan).
The US uses and produces a variety of types and sources of energy (EIA):
Primary energy: includes fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, and coal), nuclear, and renewables (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydropower).
Secondary: generated from a primary source (such as electricity).
Renewable: sources that are naturally replenishing, but limited in how much they can supply at a given time.
Nonrenewables and fossil fuels: most non-renewable energy sources are fossil fuels, but nuclear energy is also a nonrenewable source that is not a fossil fuel.
Nearly 40% of energy goes to electricity. Residential, commercial, and industrial customers each account for roughly 1/3 of the nation’s electricity use (EPA - U.S. Electricity System).
Clean energy includes renewable energy, energy efficiency, and efficient combined heat and power (EPA).
Producing and using energy more efficiently reduces both the amount of fuel needed and the amount of greenhouse gases and other air pollution emitted as a result (EPA).
Using renewable resources such as solar, geothermal, and wind generally does not contribute to climate change or local air pollution since no fuels are combusted (EPA).
In 2020, the share of electricity produced from power plants came from (EIA - US Generation):
60% fossil fuels (40% from natural gas, 19.3% from coal, the rest from petroleum)
19.8% renewables (8.4% from wind, 7.3% from hydro, and 2.3% from solar)
Of the total energy consumed in the United States, about 40% is used to generate electricity (EPA).
Although electricity is a clean and relatively safe form of energy when it is used, the generation and transmission of electricity affects the environment (EIA - Electricity and the Environment) - read more in the Negative Effects section below.
There are three types of electric power utility ownership structures (EIA):
investor-owned utilities (IOUs): large electric distributors that issue stock owned by shareholders. Almost 75% of utility customers get their electricity from these companies.
publicly run or managed utilities (POUs): federal-, state-, and municipal-run utilities. Includes government entities and public utility districts—utilities that residents vote into existence that operate independently of city or country government.
cooperatives (co-ops): not-for-profit member-owned utilities. Co-ops are located in 47 states but are most prevalent in the Midwest and Southeast.
Although there are fewer investor-owned utilities than the other two types of utilities, they tend to be very large.
With an endless supply of renewable resources, there is the potential to power our communities 100% from clean energy alone. The main obstacles to this are the cost, technology limitations, and geographic limitations of certain sources (CEI):
Solar – both domestic solar panels and solar farms are more efficient in areas where there is a good level of annual sunlight.
Wind – wind farms are only viable where there is enough wind. This is why you will mostly see wind turbines on top of hills or out at sea.
Geothermal – this can only generate power in specific parts of the world; those with enough thermal activity close to the surface of the earth.
Hydro – hydroelectric dams can only be built in specific locations and tidal barrages are best suited to installation along an estuary. Wave turbines are also only viable in areas with enough wave energy.
Biomass – this is one of the renewable energy sources least affected by geographic limitations. It does, however, require an adequate supply of crops/vegetation, and/or waste products. This makes it unsustainable in arid locations.
In addition to increasing the use of clean energy, the US must also improve the accessibility of energy - especially through addressing the issue of affordability.
The US Energy Information Administration's (EIA) Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) found that nearly 1/3 of US households have trouble paying energy bills, or maintaining sufficient heating and cooling (the most up to date data is from 2015, the new survey is currently being conducted and will be released in late 2021). Additionally:
20% of households (25 million) reported reducing or forgoing necessities such as food and medicine to pay an energy bill. 7 million households reported facing this challenge on a monthly basis
14% (17 million) reported receiving a disconnection notice for energy service.
11% of households reported keeping their home at unhealthy or unsafe temperatures.
The EIA's findings suggest that the structural features of a home and demographic characteristics are more likely to be associated with a household’s ability to afford energy and maintain equipment than geography and associated climates.
By relying primarily on fossil fuels for energy production, the US emits 5,146 million metric tons (MMmt) of carbon dioxide (CO2, the main greenhouse gas behind climate change). CO2 emissions by the U.S. electric power sector made up over 30% of all energy-related emission in 2020 (EIA - US Emissions)
In addition to contributing to climate change, using fossil fuels contributes to the pollution of our air and water, impacting our health and wellbeing.
The substances that are released when fossil fuels are burned include (EIA - Electricity and the Environment):
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
Particulate matter (PM)
Heavy metals such as mercury
Nearly all of these have negative effects on the environment and human health including:
contributing to the greenhouse effect - the main driver of climate change.
causing acid rain, which is harmful to plants and to animals that live in water.
causing respiratory illnesses, lung damage, asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart diseases, emphysema, and lung cancer - particularly impacting children and the elderly.
Reliance on Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels continue to dominate our energy supply. Coal makes more than half of our electricity needs and the US transportation sector relies heavily on petroleum -responsible for 20 percent of our climate change pollution. We spend $1 billion every day on foreign oil (NWF).
Affordability and COVID-19
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of U.S. households are facing large past-due utility bills (US News). The National Energy Assistance Directors Association estimates there is a total of $27 billion in past-due balances of U.S. households.
The ability to afford monthly utility payments is not new. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, an estimated $11 billion was owed by 20 million households (US News).
According to research by the World Resources Institute,
About 3/4 of the U.S. coal fleet is now more expensive to operate than it would be to build and operate new solar and wind energy farms.
U.S. clean energy investment climbed to a record $78.3 billion in 2019 - primarily solar and wind, second in the world behind China.
In 2019 zero-emissions generation like solar and wind was responsible for about 544,000 jobs more than twice as many as the 214,000 jobs in fossil fuels.
$1 million spent on clean energy in the US generates more than twice as many jobs as $1 million spent on fossil fuels.
Energy efficiency upgrades can reduce rural energy burdens by as much as 25%, translating into more than $475 in annual savings for rural households.
Wind farms paid $761 million in state and local taxes in 2018, plus $289 million in lease payments to farmers and landowners who hosted wind turbines on their land.
Some measures of success identified by the UN SDGs (sdg-tracker.org) include:
Increase the share of people with electricity access at the household level.
Increase the renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, biomass) share in total energy consumption.
Double the improvement in energy efficiency.
Increase access, technology, and investments in clean energy
Based on data from over 600,000 tax returns filed by nonprofits in the US (data via X4Impact), on an average year, 4,248 nonprofit organizations working on energy-related issues in the US report $61B in income.
There is also at least $83 million in open grant funding.
The EPA lists several solutions that can help reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with generating electricity, including:
Energy efficiency. End-users can meet some of their needs by adopting energy-efficient technologies and practices. In this respect, energy efficiency is a resource that reduces the need to generate electricity. Learn more about energy efficiency.
Clean centralized generation. New and existing power plants can reduce environmental impacts by increasing generation efficiency, installing pollution controls, and leveraging cleaner energy supply resources. Learn more about centralized generation.
Clean distributed generation. Some distributed generation, such as distributed renewable energy, can help support delivery of clean, reliable power to customers and reduce electricity losses along transmission and distribution lines. Learn more about distributed generation.
Combined heat and power (CHP). Also known as cogeneration, CHP produces electricity and heat simultaneously from the same fuel source. By using heat that would otherwise be wasted, CHP is both distributed generation and a form of energy efficiency. Learn more about CHP.