The last decade has shown a significant increase in clean energy and sustainability efforts, as the effects of climate change have forced policymakers, corporations, and consumers to reckon with the adverse impacts of burning fossil fuels. In the past twenty years, American consumption of renewable energy surpassed coal. About 12 percent of total U.S. energy consumption was from renewable sources in 2020, which is a huge leap from the less than four percent of renewables that were used in 2000. Of course, there is still a long way to go to achieve deep decarbonization.
The American West has particularly immense potential for renewable energy generation. With vast sunny skies, windy open plains, rapid rivers, and ample underground geothermal activity, Western states offer great promise for various forms of renewable energy. As a result, some of these states have already begun to establish themselves as leaders in the clean energy movement.
Texas, Washington, California, and Oregon are currently the biggest producers of renewable energy in the U.S. Their success has largely been due to their size and geographic features that allow for efficient energy capture, particularly in the wind, hydroelectric, and solar industries. States in the Northeast like Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont are also leading in renewable energy policy and deployment, but their geography and size inhibit their production capabilities.
Renewable Energy: Status Update
For the purpose of brevity, the focus of this article will be on established renewable energy infrastructure in the solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric sectors. However, other sustainable energy sources also contribute to our nation’s renewable energy production and are becoming more mainstream everyday.
In the solar sector, California ranked first in the nation, with over 30,000 megawatts of solar installed throughout the state — enough to power over eight million homes. In addition to providing clean energy, California’s solar power industry provides ample employment opportunities, and solar jobs in the state have risen from 15,421 in 2012 to 68,677 in 2020. The state’s largest solar energy production site, Topaz Solar Farms, produces enough electricity on it’s own to power 160,000 homes. Despite being the nation’s solar leader, only about 24 percent of California’s electricity usage is supplied by the source. In order to meet their climate and energy goals, renewable energy must be further supported in policies. The state does encourage the use of solar energy through the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which is a 26 percent tax credit for solar systems on residential and commercial properties. Additionally, as of the beginning of 2020, all new homes built in the state must have solar.
Although wind power is gaining popularity in Western states, it’s predominantly generated in the Midwest, with Oklahoma leading production with 8,072 megawatts worth of capacity installed in the state so far. California comes in second, followed by more Midwestern states, such as Kansas, Illinois, and Minnesota. However, Colorado and Oregon are currently ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, and are advancing rapidly.
Colorado has three major wind farms, all producing enough electricity to power around 800,000 homes, the largest of which is the Limon Wind Energy Center located east of Denver. In 2004, Colorado enacted its Renewable Portfolio Standard in a state statute known as Initiative 37, which required utility companies to generate ten percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2015 with room for expansion afterwards.
In Oregon, wind power generates enough electricity for nearly 700,000 homes, accounting for 11 percent of the state’s energy capacity in 2018. The state’s wind farms have been in the news frequently lately, as Biden’s Climate Plan proposed the placement of an offshore wind farm off the Oregon coast. This farm would be included with six others off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, generating enough electricity to power more than ten million homes. Similar to Colorado, Oregon also has a Renewable Portfolio Standard that was put forth in Oregon Senate Bill 1547 in 2016, requiring Oregon’s electricity needs to be met 50 percent by renewables by 2040.
California and Nevada are leading the nation in geothermal electricity production. California produces over 70 percent of the nation’s geothermal electricity and Nevada produces almost 25 percent. In 2020, California covered almost six percent of its energy needs with geothermal electric generation. With 40 operating geothermal power plants, California has installed a capacity of 2,712 megawatts of geothermal energy, enough to power over 350,000 homes.
Nevada, on the other hand, has 19 geothermal electricity plants mostly in the northern part of the state, and can produce enough geothermal energy to power 315,000 homes. The only other states that currently generate geothermal electricity are also all Western states, including Utah, Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho, and New Mexico.
The Pacific Northwest is particularly prolific in hydroelectric power generation. The state of Washington leads the nation in this sector, producing a massive 75,492 billion kilowatt hours in 2020 alone, which is enough to power over four million homes for the whole year. The state usually generates more than one-fourth of the nation’s hydroelectric power depending on water levels. The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is the seventh largest hydroelectric power plant in the world and supplies power to 11 Western states and Canada. On average, hydroelectric power accounts for more than two-thirds of Washington’s electricity generation every year. Oregon comes in as the runner up, producing 33,624 billion kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power in 2020, which amounted to 49 percent of the state’s electricity generation. Other states in the Northwest are also large hydroelectricity producers. Idaho generates 76.1 percent of its energy from renewable sources, with 55 percent coming from conventional hydroelectric power plants.
Clean Energy Caveats
It is worth noting that, while renewables promise a more sustainable energy future, further development of these energy sources must be done in a way that prioritizes the social, environmental, and economic well-being of the surrounding communities. All of these sources of power generation pose their own potential issues despite the benefits associated with renewable resources. Solar farm placement is often in tension with the fight for environmental justice as they tend to encroach on Indigenous lands. Wind farms are largely associated with habitat degradation for many plains animals but particularly those who take to the skies: birds and bats. Geothermal energy generation has many negative impacts including poor water and air quality depending on its system. And hydroelectric power production raises large concerns about habitat loss and species degradation since dams have immense environmental impacts on the areas up and down stream from them. This is especially pertinent to salmon and other migrating fish species like steelhead which are native to the Columbia River Basin — the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the nation.
Although these renewables are great for emissions reductions, we must ensure that they are also equitable and sustainable. In order to do this, we must shift our priorities from only focusing on the use of renewable sources to examining the communal and environmental impacts these resources have if done without the necessary considerations.
The Potential for Expanded Renewables in the West
The American West, particularly the Rocky Mountain states, have long supplied the country with fossil fuels. But with the increasing demand to step away from nonrenewable fuel sources, these same states now show great promise in the renewable energy industry. President Biden’s climate plan has bolstered the renewable movement and will likely continue to do so with incentives for sustainable energy production and use.
Additionally, the Interior Department canceled oil and gas leases on public lands earlier this year, showing the federal government’s growing commitment to clean energy. Public lands in the West have also been increasingly recognized as potential renewable power plant sites as their development is less controversial and more sustainable than fossil fuel extraction. The outlook is certainly good for renewable energy generation and consumption in the United States, and there is no doubt that generation in the West will be essential to its continued expansion.