Renewable energy is energy that comes from sources that replenish themselves over short periods of time. For the most part, renewable energy sources also provide clean energy, or energy that emits few greenhouse gases or pollutants. For this reason, many policy experts and scientists advocate renewable energy sources over traditional fossil fuels. The difficulty is achieving the technology, infrastructure, and political support to make this transition.
The five renewable energy sources highlighted in this map series are the five largest worldwide. Hydroelectric energy is by far the most prevalent, accounting for 83% of the world's electricity generation from renewable sources. This is most likely because the requisite technology to generate electricity by harnessing the flow of water has been around the longest, dating back to the early 20th century. Wind energy is the next largest, at just over 7% of the electricity generated from renewable sources, followed by biowaste and biomass energy (7%), geothermal energy (2%), and solar, tidal, and wave energy (less than 1%).
This map series shows electricity generation from renewable energy sources in billion kilowatt-hours. The first map shows each country's total electricity generation from all renewable energy sources averaged over the years 2006-2010. The following maps show the same figure broken down by renewable energy type. The data come from the United States Energy Information Administration.
Take a look at the countries that generate the most electricity overall from renewable energy sources (the darkest color). What common features do you see?
Where might you expect to find the most electricity generated from hydroelectric energy? Is this reflected on the map?
Which region of the world generates the most electricity from wind power? Why might this be?
Why might energy from biomass and biowaste be a particularly attractive alternative to traditional fossil fuels?
Why do you think so few countries produce electricity from geothermal energy?
Why do you think solar, tidal, and wave energy are included in the same category?
- Between 2006 and 2009, China nearly doubled its electricity generation from renewable energy sources. In 2006, it generated 437 billion kilowatt hours, and in 2010 it generated 770 billion kilowatt hours, the most of any single country in the world and about 5% of its total electricity generation. 93% of China's renewable energy comes from hydroelectric power, and it produces the most hydroelectricity of any country in the world. China's hydroelectric power alone could power the United Kingdom for two years.
- Antarctica—the windiest place on Earth—produces much of the electricity that powers its various research bases from wind farms. The southernmost one, built in 2010, is located on Ross Island at New Zealand's Scott Base. There, wind turbines are set to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1,227 metric tons (1,242 tons) per year.
- Germany produces the most electricity from solar, tidal, and wave energy of any country in the world, and is producing more every day. Between 2006 and 2010, it increased its production by over 300%, and has continued to increase its capacity since. Germany is especially invested in solar energy. Despite leading the world in solar capacity, Germany only got 2% of its overall electricity from solar in 2010.
- While the United States leads the world in overall geothermal energy production, the Philippines produces about twice as much per capita. The country has seven geothermal power plants on four different islands, which together account for 17% of the country's electricity generation. Its position in the Pacific "Ring of Fire" makes it an ideal setting for harnessing geothermal energy and many more sites are currently in development.
- The United States is the worlds largest producer of biofuels. Biomass was the country's second largest source of renewable energy (after hydroelectric) until 2008, when it was surpassed by wind. In 2010, biomass made up about 7% of the country's electricity generation from renewable energy. Because biomass energy comes from any usable organic matter, it is available almost anywhere. In the United States, biomass energy most often comes from wood, wood waste, crops like corn, and from municipal solid waste.
- New York Times: Tajikistan Hopes Water Will Power Its Ambitions
- National Geographic Education: How Iceland Uses Geothermal Energy
- National Geographic Education: Wild Winds—Lake Turkana Wind Power Aims to Create Electricity for Kenya
- Forbes: Will Algae Biofuels Hit the Highway?
- CNN: A Dazzling Future for Solar Power?
- Scientific American: One Hot Island—Iceland’s Renewable Geothermal Power
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry advocate Verb
to argue in favor of something.
Earth's fifth-largest continental landmass.
Encyclopedic Entry: Antarctica biofuel Noun
energy source derived directly from organic matter, such as plants.
biomass energy Noun
renewable energy derived from living or recently living organisms, mostly plants.
clean energy Noun
electrical energy that does not pollute the atmosphere, water, or earth.
fossil fuel Noun
coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.
geothermal energy Noun
heat energy generated within the Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: geothermal energy greenhouse gas Noun
gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.
hydroelectric energy Noun
energy generated by moving water converted to electricity. Also known as hydroelectricity.
Encyclopedic Entry: hydroelectric energy infrastructure Noun
structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.
(kWh) unit of energy equal to 1,000 watt hours.
chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.
power plant Noun
industrial facility for the generation of electric energy.
renewable energy Noun
energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.
resource base Noun
the available supply of goods, materials, or services in a specific place at a specific time.
Ring of Fire Noun
horseshoe-shaped string of volcanoes and earthquake sites around edges of the Pacific Ocean.
Encyclopedic Entry: Plate Tectonics and the Ring of Fire solar power Noun
rate of producing, transferring, or using solar energy.
tall grass native to North America.
tidal energy Noun
energy produced as ocean waters surge in and out with tides.
Encyclopedic Entry: tidal energy wave energy Noun
energy produced by ocean waves.
wind energy Noun
kinetic energy produced by the movement of air, able to be converted to mechanical power.
wind farm Noun
area with a large group of wind turbines, used to generate electric power.