In March 2017, wind and solar accounted for 10 percent of all US electricity generation for the first time ever. Although 10 percent may not sound high, it reflected a major achievement for both technologies, which have overcome numerous barriers to become competitive with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.
But renewables still face major obstacles. Some are inherent with all new technologies; others are the result of a skewed regulatory framework and marketplace. This page explores the barriers to renewable energy in detail, with a focus on wind and solar.
For more on why renewable energy is so important, please see our page on the Benefits of Renewable Energy Use.
The most obvious and widely publicized barrier to renewable energy is cost—specifically, capital costs, or the upfront expense of building and installing solar and wind farms. Like most renewables, solar and wind are exceedingly cheap to operate—their “fuel” is free, and maintenance is minimal—so the bulk of the expense comes from building the technology.
The average cost in 2017 to install solar systems ranged from a little over $2,000 per kilowatt (kilowatts are a measure of power capacity) for large-scale systems to almost $3,700 for residential systems. A new natural gas plant might have costs around $1,000/kW. Wind comes in around $1,200 to $1,700/kw.
Higher construction costs might make financial institutions more likely to perceive renewables as risky, lending money at higher rates and making it harder for utilities or developers to justify the investment. For natural gas and other fossil fuel power plants, the cost of fuel may be passed onto the consumer, lowering the risk associated with the initial investment (though increasing the risk of erratic electric bills).
However, if costs over the lifespan of energy projects are taken into account, wind and utility-scale solar can be the least expensive energy generating sources, according to asset management company Lazard. As of 2017, the cost (before tax credits that would further drop the costs) of wind power was $30-60 per megawatt-hour (a measure of energy), and large-scale solar cost $43-53/MWh. For comparison: energy from the most efficient type of natural gas plants cost $42-78/MWh; coal power cost at least $60/MWh.
Even more encouragingly, renewable energy capital costs have fallen dramatically since the early 2000s, and will likely continue to do so. For example: between 2006 and 2016, the average value of photovoltaic modules themselves plummeted from $3.50/watt $0.72/watt—an 80 percent decrease in only 10 years.
Siting and transmission
Nuclear power, coal, and natural gas are all highly centralized sources of power, meaning they rely on relatively few high output power plants. Wind and solar, on the other hand, offer a decentralized model, in which smaller generating stations, spread across a large area, work together to provide power.
Decentralization offers a few key advantages (including, importantly, grid resilience), but it also presents barriers: siting and transmission.
Siting is the need to locate things like wind turbines and solar farms on pieces of land. Doing so requires negotiations, contracts, permits, and community relations, all of which can increase costs and delay or kill projects.
Transmission refers to the power lines and infrastructure needed to move electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. Because wind and solar are relative newcomers, most of what exists today was built to serve large fossil fuel and nuclear power plants.
But wind and solar farms aren’t all sited near old nuclear or fossil fuel power plants (in fact, some areas with fewer older power plants, such as the Great Plains and Southwest, offer some of the country’s best renewable potential). To adequately take advantage of these resources, new transmission infrastructure is needed—and transmission costs money, and needs to be sited. Both the financing and the siting can be significant barriers for developers and customers, even when they’re eager for more renewables—though, again, clean energy momentum is making this calculation easier.
For most of the last century US electricity was dominated by certain major players, including coal, nuclear, and, most recently, natural gas. Utilities across the country have invested heavily in these technologies, which are very mature and well understood, and which hold enormous market power.
This situation—the well-established nature of existing technologies—presents a formidable barrier for renewable energy. Solar, wind, and other renewable resources need to compete with wealthier industries that benefit from existing infrastructure, expertise, and policy. It’s a difficult market to enter.
New energy technologies—startups—face even larger barriers. They compete with major market players like coal and gas, and with proven, low-cost solar and wind technologies. To prove their worth, they must demonstrate scale: most investors want large quantities of energy, ideally at times when wind and solar aren’t available. That’s difficult to accomplish, and a major reason why new technologies suffer high rates of failure.
Increased government investment in clean energy—in the form of subsidies, loan assistance, and research and development—would help.
Unequal playing field
You don’t tend to see multi-billion dollar industries without also seeing outsized political influence—and the fossil fuel industry is no exception.
Oil Change International estimates that the United States spends $37.5 billion on subsidies for fossil fuels every year. Through direct subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives and loopholes, US taxpayers help fund the industry’s research and development, mining, drilling, and electricity generation. While subsidies have likely increased domestic production, they’ve also diverted capital from more productive activities (such as energy efficiency) and constrained the growth of renewable energy (solar and wind enjoy fewer subsidies and, generally, receive much less preferential political treatment).
For decades, the fossil fuel industry has used its influence to spread false or misleading information about climate change—a strong motivation for choosing low-carbon energy sources like wind or solar (in addition to the economic reasons). Industry leaders knew about the risks of global warming as early as the 1970s, but recognized that dealing with global warming meant using fewer fossil fuels. They went on to finance—and continue to fund—climate disinformation campaigns, aimed at sewing doubt about climate change and renewable energy.
Their efforts were successful. Despite widespread scientific consensus, climate action is now a partisan issue in the US congress, complicating efforts to move from fossil fuels to clean energy.
The disconnect between science and policy means that the price we pay for coal and gas isn’t representative of the true cost of fossil fuels (ie, it doesn’t reflect the enormous costs of global warming and other externalities). This in turn means that renewables aren’t entering an equal playing field: they’re competing with industries that we subsidize both directly (via government incentives) and indirectly (by not punishing polluters).
Emission fees or caps on total pollution, potentially with tradable emission permits, are examples of ways we could use to help remove this barrier.
Renewable energy opponents love to highlight the variability of the sun and wind as a way of bolstering support for coal, gas, and nuclear plants, which can more easily operate on-demand or provide “baseload” (continuous) power. The argument is used to undermine large investments in renewable energy, presenting a rhetorical barrier to higher rates of wind and solar adoption.
But reality is much more favorable for clean energy. Solar and wind are highly predictable, and when spread across a large enough geographic area—and paired with complementary generation sources—become highly reliable. Modern grid technologies like advanced batteries, real-time pricing, and smart appliances can also help solar and wind be essential elements of a well-performing grid.
Tests performed in California, which has some of the highest rates of renewable electricity use in the world, provide real-world validation for the idea that solar and wind can actually enhance grid reliability. A 2017 Department of Energy report confirmed this, citing real-world experience and multiple scientific studies to confirm that the United States can safely and reliably operate the electric grid with high levels of renewables.
Many utilities, though, still don’t consider the full value of wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Energy planners often consider narrow cost parameters, and miss the big-picture, long-term opportunities that renewables offer. Increased awareness—and a willingness to move beyond the reliability myth—is sorely needed.
Renewables are cheap to operate, but can be expensive to build.
Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL
Selecting an appropriate site for renewables can be challenging.
US electricity sources, 2016. Renewables face stiff competition from more established, higher-carbon sectors.
Source: EIA, 2016
Climate action opponents like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt have long been propped up by industry money.
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
When done correctly, reliability isn't a concern with wind and solar—it's actually a strength.
Photo: John Rogers/Union of Concern Scientists
Wind turbines and solar panels are an increasingly common sight. But why? What are the benefits of renewable energies—and how do they improve our health, environment, and economy?
This page explores the many positive impacts of clean energy, including the benefits of wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass. For more information on their negative impacts—including effective solutions to avoid, minimize, or mitigate—see our page on The Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies.
Less global warming
Human activity is overloading our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other global warming emissions. These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat. The result is a web of significant and harmful impacts, from stronger, more frequent storms, to drought, sea level rise, and extinction.
In the United States, about 29 percent of global warming emissions come from our electricity sector. Most of those emissions come from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas [1, 2].
What is CO2e?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, but other air pollutants—such as methane—also cause global warming. Different energy sources produce different amounts of these pollutants. To make comparisons easier, we use a carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e—the amount of carbon dioxide required to produce an equivalent amount of warming.
In contrast, most renewable energy sources produce little to no global warming emissions. Even when including “life cycle” emissions of clean energy (ie, the emissions from each stage of a technology’s life—manufacturing, installation, operation, decommissioning), the global warming emissions associated with renewable energy are minimal .
The comparison becomes clear when you look at the numbers. Burning natural gas for electricity releases between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2E/kWh); coal emits between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of CO2E/kWh. Wind, on the other hand, is responsible for only 0.02 to 0.04 pounds of CO2E/kWh on a life-cycle basis; solar 0.07 to 0.2; geothermal 0.1 to 0.2; and hydroelectric between 0.1 and 0.5.
Renewable electricity generation from biomass can have a wide range of global warming emissions depending on the resource and whether or not it is sustainably sourced and harvested.
Increasing the supply of renewable energy would allow us to replace carbon-intensive energy sources and significantly reduce US global warming emissions.
For example, a 2009 UCS analysis found that a 25 percent by 2025 national renewable electricity standard would lower power plant CO2 emissions 277 million metric tons annually by 2025—the equivalent of the annual output from 70 typical (600 MW) new coal plants .
In addition, a ground-breaking study by the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) explored the feasibility of generating 80 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2050. They found that renewable energy could help reduce the electricity sector’s emissions by approximately 81 percent .
Improved public health
The air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas plants is linked with breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, cancer, premature death, and a host of other serious problems. The pollution affects everyone: one Harvard University study estimated the life cycle costs and public health effects of coal to be an estimated $74.6 billion every year. That’s equivalent to 4.36 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced—about one-third of the average electricity rate for a typical US home .
Most of these negative health impacts come from air and water pollution that clean energy technologies simply don’t produce. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions. Geothermal and biomass systems emit some air pollutants, though total air emissions are generally much lower than those of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants.
In addition, wind and solar energy require essentially no water to operate and thus do not pollute water resources or strain supplies by competing with agriculture, drinking water, or other important water needs. In contrast, fossil fuels can have a significant impact on water resources: both coal mining and natural gas drilling can pollute sources of drinking water, and all thermal power plants, including those powered by coal, gas, and oil, withdraw and consume water for cooling.
Biomass and geothermal power plants, like coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, may require water for cooling. Hydroelectric power plants can disrupt river ecosystems both upstream and downstream from the dam. However, NREL's 80-percent-by-2050 renewable energy study, which included biomass and geothermal, found that total water consumption and withdrawal would decrease significantly in a future with high renewables .
Strong winds, sunny skies, abundant plant matter, heat from the earth, and fast-moving water can each provide a vast and constantly replenished supply of energy. A relatively small fraction of US electricity currently comes from these sources, but that could change: studies have repeatedly shown that renewable energy can provide a significant share of future electricity needs, even after accounting for potential constraints .
In fact, a major government-sponsored study found that clean energy could contribute somewhere between three and 80 times its 2013 levels, depending on assumptions . And the previously mentioned NREL study found that renewable energy could comfortably provide up to 80 percent of US electricity by 2050.
Jobs and other economic benefits
Compared with fossil fuel technologies, which are typically mechanized and capital intensive, the renewable energy industry is more labor intensive. Solar panels need humans to install them; wind farms need technicians for maintenance.
This means that, on average, more jobs are created for each unit of electricity generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels.
Renewable energy already supports thousands of jobs in the United States. In 2016, the wind energy industry directly employed over 100,000 full-time-equivalent employees in a variety of capacities, including manufacturing, project development, construction and turbine installation, operations and maintenance, transportation and logistics, and financial, legal, and consulting services . More than 500 factories in the United States manufacture parts for wind turbines, and wind power project installations in 2016 alone represented $13.0 billion in investments .
Other renewable energy technologies employ even more workers. In 2016, the solar industry employed more than 260,000 people, including jobs in solar installation, manufacturing, and sales, a 25% increase over 2015 . The hydroelectric power industry employed approximately 66,000 people in 2017 ; the geothermal industry employed 5,800 people .
Increased support for renewable energy could create even more jobs. The 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists study of a 25-percent-by-2025 renewable energy standard found that such a policy would create more than three times as many jobs (more than 200,000) as producing an equivalent amount of electricity from fossil fuels .
In contrast, the entire coal industry employed 160,000 people in 2016 .
In addition to the jobs directly created in the renewable energy industry, growth in clean energy can create positive economic “ripple” effects. For example, industries in the renewable energy supply chain will benefit, and unrelated local businesses will benefit from increased household and business incomes .
Local governments also benefit from clean energy, most often in the form of property and income taxes and other payments from renewable energy project owners. Owners of the land on which wind projects are built often receive lease payments ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 per megawatt of installed capacity, as well as payments for power line easements and road rights-of-way. They may also earn royalties based on the project’s annual revenues. Farmers and rural landowners can generate new sources of supplemental income by producing feedstocks for biomass power facilities.
UCS analysis found that a 25-by-2025 national renewable electricity standard would stimulate $263.4 billion in new capital investment for renewable energy technologies, $13.5 billion in new landowner income from? biomass production and/or wind land lease payments, and $11.5 billion in new property tax revenue for local communities .
Stable energy prices
Renewable energy is providing affordable electricity across the country right now, and can help stabilize energy prices in the future.
Although renewable facilities require upfront investments to build, they can then operate at very low cost (for most clean energy technologies, the “fuel” is free). As a result, renewable energy prices can be very stable over time.
Moreover, the costs of renewable energy technologies have declined steadily, and are projected to drop even more. For example, the average price to install solar dropped more than 70 percent between 2010 and 2017 . The cost of generating electricity from wind dropped 66 percent between 2009 and 2016 . Costs will likely decline even further as markets mature and companies increasingly take advantage of economies of scale.
In contrast, fossil fuel prices can vary dramatically and are prone to substantial price swings. For example, there was a rapid increase in US coal prices due to rising global demand before 2008, then a rapid fall after 2008 when global demands declined . Likewise, natural gas prices have fluctuated greatly since 2000 .
Using more renewable energy can lower the prices of and demand for natural gas and coal by increasing competition and diversifying our energy supplies. And an increased reliance on renewable energy can help protect consumers when fossil fuel prices spike.
Reliability and resilience
Wind and solar are less prone to large-scale failure because they are distributed and modular. Distributed systems are spread out over a large geographical area, so a severe weather event in one location will not cut off power to an entire region. Modular systems are composed of numerous individual wind turbines or solar arrays. Even if some of the equipment in the system is damaged, the rest can typically continue to operate.
For example, Hurricane Sandy damaged fossil fuel-dominated electric generation and distribution systems in New York and New Jersey and left millions of people without power. In contrast, renewable energy projects in the Northeast weathered Hurricane Sandy with minimal damage or disruption .
Water scarcity is another risk for non-renewable power plants. Coal, nuclear, and many natural gas plants depend on having sufficient water for cooling, which means that severe droughts and heat waves can put electricity generation at risk. Wind and solar photovoltaic systems do not require water to generate electricity and can operate reliably in conditions that may otherwise require closing a fossil fuel-powered plant. (For more information, see How it Works: Water for Electricity.)
The risk of disruptive events will also increase in the future as droughts, heat waves, more intense storms, and increasingly severe wildfires become more frequent due to global warming—increasing the need for resilient, clean technologies.
 Environmental Protection Agency. 2017. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2015.
 Energy Information Agency (EIA). 2017. How much of the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation?
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2011. IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [O. Edenhofer, R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, K. Seyboth, P. Matschoss, S. Kadner, T. Zwickel, P. Eickemeier, G. Hansen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow (eds)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1075 pp. (Chapter 9).
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IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2011.
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Different sources of energy produce different amounts of heat-trapping gases. As shown in this chart, renewable energies tend to have much lower emissions than other sources, such as natural gas or coal.
Source: IPCC, 2011 Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (Chapter 9).
Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons
Two energy workers installing solar panels.
Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL