A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Renewable Energy ‘Doubled’?

President Barack Obama has been claiming that the United States has “doubled our use of renewable energy.” Not true. Wind and solar have doubled, but total renewable energy consumption is up by about one quarter from 2008 to 2011. Plus, since wind and solar started at such a low level, a doubling may not be as impressive to voters as it sounds.

The largest category of renewable energy is biomass, such as ethanol that is blended in gasoline. And the second-biggest category is hydropower — electricity generated from dams. Hydro was 35 percent of all renewable energy in 2008 and 2011, and biomass dipped a bit to 49 percent for last year.

Obama has made the claim in his speech at the Democratic National Convention and at several recent campaign stops.

But it’s simply not the case. All renewable energy accounted for 9 percent of the nation’s energy consumption in 2011, up from 7 percent in 2008. Measured in units of energy, BTUs, the consumption went up by about 26 percent and production went up by about 27 percent (see Table 1.1).

Even if we discount hydro, which isn’t popular with clean-energy proponents, other renewable generation went up by 55 percent, still well short of a doubling.

If the president had stuck to talking about wind and solar, he would have been correct. And he has come close at some campaign stops, such as one in Golden, Colo. — where he said on Sept. 13, “We’ve doubled the amount of renewable energy that we generate from sources like wind and solar power.” And he made the “wind and solar” stipulation in West Palm Beach on Sept. 9.

Wind and solar energy generation has indeed doubled. Wind went from 55.4 million megawatt-hours in 2008 to 119.7 million megawatt-hours in 2011. And solar climbed from 864,000 megawatt-hours in 2008 to 1.8 million megawatt-hours in 2011. And the consumption numbers also show a doubling for wind and a near doubling for solar (see Table 1.3).

But in the grand scheme of energy production and use, those million megawatt numbers are actually small. Wind still only accounted for 13 percent of all renewable energy generated in 2011 (up from 7.6 percent in 2008), and solar was at 1.3 percent of all renewables generated in 2011, up from 1.2 percent three years earlier.

“Making large increases in wind power or solar power is not as big a challenge, let’s say, as making a 50 percent increase in natural gas,” says Frank V. Maisano, an energy expert at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. “You have to put it into context.” Since wind and solar are coming from a small starting point, an increase percentage-wise sounds large, he says. But it doesn’t sound as big when looking at the total megawatt-hours.

— Lori Robertson