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America isn’t using nearly as much renewable energy as Americans think

wind & solar
Not quite the reality yet.
(Shutterstock)

Of all the energy the US uses, how much comes from wind and solar power? Take a guess (without Googling!).

The average American, at least according to this new survey from communications and PR firm Makovsky, has it at 20 percent — 11 percent from solar, 9 percent from wind.

That is … quite wrong. In reality, solar is at 1 percent and wind is at 2 percent.

Meanwhile, the average American thinks that in five years, solar will be at 20 percent and wind will be at 14 percent.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that in five years, solar will still be at 1 percent and wind will have grown to a whopping 3.

In short, Americans are overly optimistic about renewable energy in the US.

makovsky (Makovsky)

This only one survey, with just over 1,000 respondents, so it’s not worth making too much of it. But I bet a larger survey would find similar results. I see two things going on here.

First, a lot of people — including, lamentably, many journalists and policymakers — do not grasp the difference between electricity and energy. (The former is a subset of the latter.) They hear about the success of wind and solar and they think "fossil fuels" are being displaced. When they think fossil fuels, they think oil.

But wind and solar are only for electricity, so they only displace coal and natural gas. Oil is used for transportation and industry, and it still completely dominates those categories. It’s not going anywhere, at least until we figure out a way to electrify everything, which won’t happen in the next five years. (The electric vehicle market is growing, but not that fast.)

The success of clean electricity has given the US public (and elites!) an exaggerated sense of the success of clean energy. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the battle to drive oil and gas out of the transportation and heating sectors is going to be, if anything, more difficult and contentious than the fight to get coal out of electricity.

obama solar
Lots more of these to go.
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Second, I think this reflects a real communications victory on the part of clean energy industries and climate advocates. For years and years now, they’ve been pounding on the message that renewable energy works, that it’s ready, that it’s getting cheap, that it’s growing like crazy. Repeat that stuff often enough and people will get the idea that fossil fuels are hanging on for dear life — that solar power’s total triumph is nigh.

The question is whether it’s a good thing, on balance, for Americans to overestimate wind and solar. On one hand, nothing succeeds like success. The more people believe renewable energy is real and viable today, the more they’ll be inclined to support and invest in it. The perception of momentum is arguably key to creating momentum.

On the other hand, an overly triumphalist narrative obscures the difficulty and sheer quantity of decarbonization work ahead. It could dampen the sense of urgency that is still very much needed.

Who knows.

One thing’s for sure, whoever’s responsibility for the hype on wind and solar outrunning the reality, it’s not green groups. They barely register:

energy information sources (Makovsky)

Since we know that online news sources like Vox provide only the most sober and judicious coverage of these issues, it seems we can blame this, like so much else, on television.