Data in the News: The Race to Renewable Energy

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Collecting, analyzing, and reporting with data can be daunting. The person that SAGE Publishing — the parent of MethodSpace — turns to when it has questions is Diana Aleman – editor extraordinaire for SAGE Stats and U.S. Political Stats. And now she is bringing her trials, tribulations, and expertise with data to you in this blog, Tips with Diana. Stay tuned for Diana’s experiences, tips, and tricks with finding, analyzing and visualizing data. View Diana’s blog in its native habitat HERE.

In honor of Climate Month in September and Greta Thunberg’s emotional speech to the UN General Assembly, I thought that in this blog post we could investigate America’s dependence on fossil fuels and how much work needs to be done to power the U.S. solely through renewable energy. Note that this blog post is predicated on the assumption that climate change is real. For a further explanation on the data on climate change see my earlier blog post.

In February 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, proposed the Green New Deal, a plan that would address climate change and economic inequality. The core of the plan is simple: cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) to net zero in the next ten years and move to entirely clean and renewable energy by 2030. This is an incredibly ambitious target and to examine how ambitious we need to look at the data.

The first step is to examine the current energy needs of the U.S. Fortunately the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) publishes an annual data set on U.S. energy consumption, which we can map and analyze on SAGE Stats and that I charted here as well.

Source: Energy Information Administration (Department of Energy). (2019). EIA State Energy Data: Energy consumption (state) [dataset]. Washington, DC: SAGE Stats by SAGE Publishing. Available from http://data.sagepub.com/sagestats/2208.

As you can see from the graph U.S. energy consumption has increased since the 1990s, but for the past decade has remained reasonably constant at 100,000 trillion British Thermal Units (Btu). But what proportion of that consumed energy is currently generated by renewable energy? In other words, how far does the U.S. have to go to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2030?

To answer this question we turn to EIA data that details the amount of electricity generated through renewable sources.I downloaded the data set and calculated totals for every year in order to create this graph charting the amount of energy produced by the U.S. from 2003 to 2017. As you can see renewable energy generation has almost doubled, which indicates the U.S. has made significant strides just in the past two decades.

Source: Energy Information Administration (Department of Energy). (2019). EIA Renewable Energy Trends: Electricity generated through renewable sources (state) [dataset]. Washington, DC: SAGE Stats by SAGE Publishing. Available from http://data.sagepub.com/sagestats/2661.

However, the more eagle eyed among you will have noticed that the EIA has produced data on renewable energy generation in Kilowatt hours (kWh) whilst data on energy consumption of the U.S. is in British Thermal Units (Btu). We can’t directly compare data sets that are using different measures. Therefore, I needed to convert Kilowatt hours into British thermal units. One kilowatt hour is equivalent to 3,412.141633 British thermal units. But if you don’t feel like doing the math you can always use an online calculator!

Source: Energy Information Administration (Department of Energy). (2019). EIA Renewable Energy Trends: Electricity generated through renewable sources (state) [dataset]. Washington, DC: SAGE Stats by SAGE Publishing. Available from http://data.sagepub.com/sagestats/2661.

Thus according to my calculations based on the EIA data I’ve collected here, in 2016 the U.S. produced 2,079,512,908,842,100.00 (Btu) in renewable energy generation out of a total 97,314,700,000,000,000.00 (Btu). Or 2.1 percent of America’s energy needs, which suggests that the Green New Deal will be a vast undertaking. But here’s where things get a little more positive! According to the “Percent of Electricity Generated through Renewable Sources” dataset, the U.S. generated 14.9 percent of its energy need through renewable sources in 2016 and this number increased to 16.3 percent in 2017.

So why the discrepancy? One possible explanation is in the differing definitions of “renewable energy” and what energy sources are included in this term for the data sets I’ve used. For instance, nuclear energy whilst not emitting greenhouse gases does produce different forms of pollution. Additionally, much of the fissionable energy for generating electricity comes from uranium, a non-renewable metal that needs to be extracted through mines.

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