Where are the nation’s alternative-energy hotspots?


The sources of fuels we use to power cars and trucks, heat homes, generate electricity, and so on, are not distributed around the planet equally. Oil is most abundant in places like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. Coal is plentiful in the US, China, and Russia. Canada has substantial natural gas resources.

It is the same with alternative energy, like wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass, and tidal energy. Within the US, the best source of wind is a wide belt that stretches from north to south across the center of the country, from Texas to North Dakota where it blows hardest and most steadily.

For solar power, you want a place where it is sunny a lot of the time. Ideally, you also want a location where the Sun is nearly overhead, so the sunlight does not hit the ground at an angle and spread out its energy. That makes the southern half of the country the best bet. And because the Sun shines most consistently in the desert, the best spots of all are places like New Mexico and Arizona.

Not only are these areas good sources of wind and solar, but they also have fewer people who would be disrupted by large-scale energy generation. But it also means that the electricity would have to be transported to population centers far away. That would require a whole new system of power lines. Another drawback with these energy sources, no matter what the location, is that they are variable. The Sun does not shine at night, and even in the desert it is sometimes cloudy. In windy spots, the wind does not always blow steadily.

Another form of renewable energy is geothermal — the heat from places where molten rock comes relatively close to the surface. Iceland, which has many volcanoes, gets most of its power this way. In the US, the hotspots are in California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Hawaii, and all of these but Wyoming have geothermal power plants.

Hydroelectric power is most abundant in mountainous areas like the Appalachian, Rocky, Cascade, and Sierra Nevada mountains. But those areas do not have many more places to build dams capable of generating lots of electricity. Conservationists argue that dams ruin river ecosystems, and some dams are actually being destroyed to restore free-flowing rivers.

Finally, there is biomass — plant matter that can either be burned directly or converted into fuels like ethanol. The biomass hotspots are the places where farmland and woodlands are most productive. It is important to compare how much energy it takes to grow and process biomass with the amount of energy you get out of it. It is the net energy that is important, and in some cases — like corn ethanol — it takes substantial energy to produce the fuel in the first place.