Future of U.S. Energy Gets Graphic – in a Good Way

Six charts from the Department of Energy lay out our energy future in a glimpse -- and it's refreshingly optimistic.

William Shakespeare once wrote, "Infographics are an ideal way to present information in visual terms that improve cognition of complex topics." Oops, wait a second. Wrong notes. Shakespeare didn't say that, but it's true nonetheless.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a refreshingly optimistic 30-page report on the state of clean energy titled Revolution … Now. The report covers five areas of clean energy — wind power, utility and distributed solar power, LEDs and electric vehicles — and presents much of its information visually. You can read it for yourself on the project page over at the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

Here we look at six charts from the report, each of which illustrates an encouraging trend: As these various technologies become less expensive to deploy, adoption and market penetration of renewable energy options are rising.

All charts and data from the U.S. Dept. of Energy

style="text-align: left;">For land-based wind power, cost per kilowatt hour — a standard metric in the industry — has dropped precipitously in the past 35 years. When the first large wind farms were installed back in the 1980s, the technology was expensive and inefficient. Now wind is poised to overtake hydroelectric as the number one source of renewable energy in the U.S.

style="text-align: left;">Wind power now represents nearly five percent of total U.S. electric generation, reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 132 million metric tons. The Department of Energy hopes to add another 700,000 square miles of land for potential wind development in the next few years. That's about one-fifth of the land area of the U.S.

style="text-align: left;">This graph contrasts the cost and usage figures for photovoltaic solar (PV) power deployed by utilities and municipal energy providers. These are the giant fields of solar panels that harvest energy to be piped directly into the local power grid. As you can see, installation costs have dropped slowly but steadily since 2008, when solar power at this scale was essentially an experimental novelty.

style="text-align: left;">At the same time, installed capacity has grown from virtually nothing to nearly 14 gigawatts. That figure represents the maximum output a system can generate, per hour, given optimal sun exposure. The numbers are rising fast: According to recent government updates, utility-scale PV capacity in the first half of 2016 rose 34 percent over the same period last year.

style="text-align: left;">The term "distributed generation" refers to solar systems that deliver power straight to the point where it is consumed — typically, this means individual homes and businesses. Cost of installation is slightly higher than on the larger utility scale, but once again prices have steadily declined since 2008. There are now more than 1 million homes and businesses using distributed solar in the United States.

style="text-align: left;">In recent years, some forward-thinking utility companies have started offering packages where they will purchase and install solar panel systems for homes and businesses. The utilities absorb the high up-front costs, letting customers pay in installments, while the solar system supplements traditional power and lowers monthly bills. In some leading markets, up to 90 percent of residential solar installations are handled this way.

style="text-align: left;">The technology known as LED stands for light-emitting diode, and when it's built into bulbs, lamps and other lighting fixtures, it's significantly more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent light. As this chart demonstrates, the cost of LED A-type bulbs — the standard-looking ones you're going to see at the hardware store — has dropped dramatically: 94 percent in seven years.

style="text-align: left;">It's no coincidence that, in turn, A-type bulb installations have increased dramatically. In 2008, about 400,000 LED bulbs were installed in the United States. In 2014, that number was 77 million. At the end of 2015, the Department of Energy estimates there were more than 200 million bulbs installed in nationwide. LED lamps and bulbs consumer up to 85 percent less energy than old-school incandescent bulbs.

style="text-align: left;">More than 400,000 electric vehicles (EVs) have hit U.S. roads since 2009. The Department of Energy estimates that EVs reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 58 percent on average, and combined with large-scale solar and wind initiatives, our electric future should cut carbon pollution significantly in the coming years.

style="text-align: left;">While the price of electric cars and other vehicles has remained steady in recent years, the cost of batteries continue to fall. That's due in part to a concerted effort by industry and government to make EV batteries cheaper and more efficient. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy estimates that, over the last 20 years, the government's $1 billion investment in battery R&D has yielded $3.5 million in economic value.

style="text-align: left;">Charting the average cost reductions across all five areas of renewable energy, the Department of Energy says that prices have fallen between 41 percent and 94 percent since 2008.

style="text-align: left;">The "Revolution … Now" report cites mounds of additional statistics: In 2015, Americans bought over 115,000 electric vehicles, more than double the number purchased in 2012. In the same year, LED bulb installations more than doubled from 77 million to 202 million. Nearly 74,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind power were deployed across 41 states — enough to generate electricity for more than 17 million households. It's nice to get some good news now and again. You can download the PDF version of the full report for more details and heartening infographics.