Mapping The History Of Renewable Energy In America

We don’t get that much power from renewables these days, but we’ve come a long way in the last 40 years. These maps–which track the number of solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass installations–illustrate that poignant fact.

Most likely, there are no solar panels on your roof. And it’s highly likely that when you flip on your switch, the power that turns on your lights comes straight from a coal-burning power plant, rather than a wind turbine spinning aimlessly in a field somewhere. Despite all the rhetoric there is, in fact, relatively little clean energy in this country. Combine that with the huge negative press around things like Solyndra or Google closing its renewable energy project, and the idea of changing our energy system can seem quixotic at best.


But wait. While there isn’t that much total renewable energy, we’ve still come a long way; there’s plenty to be lauded. For instance, look at this map that shows all the renewable energy installations (not including dams) in the U.S. in 1970:

Forty years ago, we were operating with just a handful of biomass power plants scattered around the country. There was not a single major wind turbine, solar panel, or geothermal installation to be found. Today, that picture is entirely different:

The country is adding renewable energy at an incredibly rapid rate, given where we were 40 years ago. In the first half of 2011, the country produced about 15% of its power from renewable sources (PDF). That’s nowhere near enough, but pessimists should look at how far we’ve come before entirely tearing down the idea of conversion to renewables.

The map also does a great job of showing where in the country is most ideal for which type of renewable (or which places the markets have dictated are ideal. But markets are the most efficient way to determine things like that, right?). You can see a huge swath of wind power running through the Midwest and north to south through the Great Plains. The deserts of the Southwest are covered with solar panels.

You can also see which states are doing a better job encouraging these kinds of projects. California, of course, is nearly obscured by colored squares, as is much of New England. The Deep South, however, is hardly any different from the map of 40 years ago.

Before the percentage of renewables goes from 15 to anything truly meaningful there are countless challenges to be met. But these paths show that the path we’re on is, at least, headed in the right direction. And you’ll notice an striking lack of red squares on that map: We haven’t even begun to tap geothermal energy. And there is a lot of that available.

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly