Generation of renewable electricity has increased from 8 percent of the nation’s electrical output in 2001 to 13 percent in 2011, according to figures released by the Energy Information Administration. However, more than half of this – 7.9 percent of the total – is represented by large hydroelectric dams that were already in place when the push toward renewables began.
The map shows the form of renewable energy that dominates in each state. Blue represents hydro, green represents wind, the gray color represents biomass, and red is geothermal. Solar is represented by yellow on the bar graph to the right but is not the dominant source in any state.
Hydro continues to dominate everywhere but in the Midwest and the Deep South. Dams dot the Appalachian Chain from Tennessee to New England and the mountainous Far West. They even predominate in flat states such as Nebraska and South Dakota, where the Army Corp of Engineers has been building dams for decades in the Mississippi-Missouri Basin.
Biomass prevails in the Deep South and forested areas of New England and the Midwest. There has been a recent campaing to substitute wood for coal in these regions, under the premise that wood is renewable while coal is not. Massachusetts recently pulled back from the effort, however, after realizing that substituting wood was going to strip forests in the western half of the state. Overall, biomass produces only 1.4 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Wind now prevails on the Great Plains, with Texas in the lead, having constructed 30,000 megawatts of capacity. Much of this has been window-dressing, however, since Texas’s windmills have proved useless in meeting the state’s peak summer demands. (See adjoining Charticle.)
Nevada gets 7 percent of its electricity from geothermal sources along the eastern slopes of the Sierras. The total output, however, is only 425 MW. California has developed 2000 MW of geothermal from the “ring of fire” along the San Andreas Fault, providing 4.5 percent of its power needs.
Although much is made of solar electricity, it still constitutes less than 0.1 percent of the nation’s electrical generation and has little impact anywhere.
Ironically, although hydro constitutes 62 percent of the nation’s renewable electricity, most environmental groups refuse to consider large dams as “renewable” and are actively campaigning to tear them down. The Sierra Club is still trying to disassemble the Hetch-Hetchy Dam, built in 1921, which provides San Francisco with most of its water and 60 percent of its electricity. But the tide may be turning against them. The California Assembly is currently considering a bill that would allow hydroelectric dams of more than 30 MW to be included in the state’s renewable mandate, which requires 33 percent renewables by 2020. The figure now stands at 18 percent, highest in the nation. If dams are included, the renewable figure will immediately rise to 32.6 percent, just short of the goal.