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Friday, August 12, 2011

U.S. Renewable Electricity Generation: Resources and Challenges

Phillip Brown
Analyst in Energy Policy

Gene Whitney
Section Research Manager

The United States faces important decisions about future energy supply and use. A key question is how renewable energy resources might be used to meet U.S. energy needs in general, and to meet U.S. electricity needs specifically. Renewable energy sources are typically used for three general types of applications: electricity generation, biofuels/bioproducts, and heating/cooling. Each application uses different technologies to convert renewable energy sources into usable products. The literature on renewable energy resources, conversion technologies for different applications, and economics is massive. This report focuses on electricity generation from renewable energy sources. In 2010, renewable sources of energy were used to produce almost 11% (7% from hydropower and 4% from other renewables) of the 4 million gigawatthours of electricity generated in the United States.

This report provides a summary of U.S. electricity generation potential from wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, ocean-hydrokinetic, and biomass sources of renewable energy. The focus of this report is twofold: (1) provide an assessment of U.S. renewable electricity generation potential and how renewables might satisfy electric power sector demand, and (2) discuss challenges, issues, and barriers that might limit renewable electricity generation deployment.

Data sources from 15 different organizations were reviewed to derive estimates of electricity generation potential. One key finding is that there exists no uniform national assessment of renewable electricity generation potential. No standard methods or set of assumptions are used to estimate renewable electricity generation potential. So even existing assessments for individual energy sources are difficult to compare objectively. In order to compare various estimates on an equivalent basis, CRS engaged experts in each renewable energy resource area to help normalize electricity generation potential estimates into a common metric: gigawatthours per year.

After surveying, researching, and normalizing all of the third-party electricity generation estimates, results indicate that renewable energy sources may, in principle, have the potential to satisfy a large portion of U.S. electricity demand. However, a number of potential barriers to large-scale deployment exist, including cost, power system integration, intermittency and variability, land requirements, transmission access, possible limits to the availability of key materials and resources, certain environmental impacts, specialized infrastructure requirements, and policy issues. Ultimately, the amount of renewable electricity generation in the U.S. may be dependent on the ability to address these deployment barriers. The Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. renewable electricity generation will increase from 11% today to between 14% and 15% in 2035.

As Congress considers policy options associated with increasing renewable electricity generation, policy makers may assess potential benefits such as emissions reduction, job creation, and global competitiveness, along with possible risks and consequences such as electricity cost and price increases, electricity delivery reliability, and environmental impacts associated with large-scale deployment of renewable electricity generation technologies.

Date of Report: August 5, 2011
Number of Pages: 52
Order Number: R41954
Price: $29.95

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