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During an appearance in Seminole, Fla., on Sept. 8, 2012, President Barack Obama touted the nation’s achievements in expanding the use of renewable energy.
"I’ve got a plan to control more of our own energy," Obama said. "After 30 years of inaction, we raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, your cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas. That will save you money. It will help the environment. We’ve doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans now have jobs building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries."
The line about renewable energy was identical to a line in Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
We wondered whether Obama was correct that we’ve "doubled our use of renewable energy."
We began by asking the Obama campaign to back up the claim. A spokeswoman cited three statistics from the Energy Information Administration, a federal agency that collects energy data.
• Net electricity generation from wind, which more than doubled between 2008 and 2011.
• Net electricity generation from solar has more than doubled over the same period.
• During the first five months of 2012, the United States has produced more electricity from wind than it did in all of 2008.
We checked the data and found out that all of these comparisons are accurate. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The problem for Obama is not that the trend is inaccurate, but that he used the wrong words to describe it.
Solar and wind are not the only types of renewables
The agency's tables include several additional categories of renewable energy, including hydroelectric, geothermal and various types of biomass energy. If you put them all together by BTUs, wind energy in 2011 accounted for 11 percent of all renewable-energy production. That’s not 11 percent of all energy production, including coal, oil and natural gas -- that’s 11 percent of just the production from renewable sources. Solar, meanwhile, was even smaller. It accounted for about 1 percent of all renewable energy production.
If you look at all types of electricity generation from renewables, the increase isn’t double between 2008 and 2011 -- it’s 55 percent.
"Energy" and "electricity" are not the same thing
Not all renewable energy is used to create electricity. For instance, some renewable energy is used for transportation, primarily ethanol in gasoline. This ethanol is counted in the "energy" category but not in the "electricity" category. Much smaller amounts of biomass are used for heating in colder locales or in industrial facilities like paper mills.
So, to use Obama’s words, did renewable energy -- not just electricity -- double between 2008 and 2011? No. The increase in megawatt hours was about 25 percent, according to EIA data and estimates.
"Taken literally, the quoted statement is imprecise and probably misleading," said Joel Darmstadter, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, an energy-policy think tank.
In his two speeches, Obama said, "We've doubled our use of renewable energy." But while the nation has made strides in expanding electricity generated by wind and solar -- the most high-profile part of the administration’s policies -- the increase for all kinds of energy, and for all types of renewables, was about 25 percent. That’s far short of doubling, so we rate the statement Mostly False.
Barack Obama, speech in Seminole, Fla., Sept. 8, 2012
Barack Obama, speech to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 6, 2012
Energy Information Administration, "Table 10.1 Renewable Energy Production and Consumption by Primary Energy Source, Selected Years, 1949-2010," accessed Sept. 10, 2012
Energy Information Administration, "Table 1.1.A. Net Generation by Other Renewables: Total (All Sectors), 2002-June 2012," accessed Sept. 10, 2012
Energy Information Administration, "How much of our electricity is generated from renewable energy?" accessed Sept. 10, 2012
Email interview with Joel Darmstadter, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, Sept. 7, 2012
Email interview with Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas), Sept. 7, 2012
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