Renewable Energy Basics

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A wind turbine.
A wind turbine. Image Credit: USGS/Photo by P Cryan
  • A wind turbine.
  • A wind energy farm in Tehachapi, California.

Renewable energy comes from sources that can be replenished on a human timescale, like biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar power. Renewable energy technologies generally have fewer environmental and health impacts than non-renewables. Like all energy sources, each renewable energy technology has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Why does renewable energy matter?

Renewable energy sources account for around 11% of U.S. energy consumption and are a fast-growing source of low-carbon electricity.[1,2] While cost can be a barrier to the adoption of renewable energy sources, rapid advances in technologies, development of robust supply chains, and policy incentives have contributed to their considerable growth in the United States in recent years.[2,3] The spread of wind and solar technologies has also contributed to increasing demand for certain minerals such as rare earth elements.

How does geoscience help inform decisions about renewable energy development?

Geoscientists study the distribution of solar, wind, hydro, tidal, and geothermal energy resources, and help to identify suitable sites for their development. They assess the impacts of renewable energy development on climate, local ecosystems, and water resources. They also locate and extract the minerals used in many renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels.


Renewable Energy Explained, EIA,

Electricity in the United States, EIA,

State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals, National Conference of State Legislatures,


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Introductory Resources

  • What You Need to Know About Energy: Renewable Sources (Webpage), The National Academies
    An in-depth overview of the current role of each energy source in the United States, the benefits and disadvantages of each energy source, and opportunities and challenges for using that energy source in the future. (Discusses geothermal, wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass.)
  • Renewable Energy Explained (Webpage), Energy Information Administration
    A basic discussion of the five commonly used renewable energy sources (biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar). Briefly overviews where each type of energy is found and how it is harnessed or utilized. Also provides a general overview of the role of renewable energy in the United States and barriers to renewable energy adoption.
  • Learning About Renewable Energy (Webpage), National Renewable Energy Laboratory
    Basic overview of renewable energy sources and technologies, including biomass, geothermal, hydrogen & fuel cells, hydropower, ocean, solar, and wind energy. Provides links to more information on research on these technologies.

Resources for Educators

Frequently Asked Questions