GRAPHIC: Gary Martin

Think about the energy we use every day when we listen to music, travel in a car, bus or subway train, refrigerate our food, buy a toy, turn on a light or an air conditioner. All of this energy comes from a variety of sources, many of them harmful to the environment.

The biggest problem is that most fuels release greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere when they are mined or burned. Increasing greenhouse gases contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the Earth’s surface.

Here is a look at where energy in the United States comes from and which energy sources government subsidies (money and tax breaks) support the most.  Every source has good and bad aspects. How would you change our energy use to reduce pollution and global warming?


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Eighty-four percent of our energy comes from non-renewable fossil fuels.  Only 7 percent is produced from renewable energy sources. This could change if government subsidies were directed to renewable sources. SOURCE:


Forty percent of our energy goes to producing electricity. This chart shows how U.S. government subsidies are distributed among electricity-generating sources. Fossil fuels (red, and purple) and nuclear (gray) receive 80% of all electricity subsidies. Renewable energies (blues, greens and yellow) receive 20% of subsidies. SOURCE: Energy Information Administration

FOSSIL FUELS (non-renewable energy)

These are produced when living things such as plants and animals die, are buried and are exposed to heat and pressure. Fossil fuels take millions of years to develop. Once the supply is used up, no more is available. Fossil fuels release greenhouse gases when produced and burned.

Coal: a black rock found underground

What’s good

There’s a big supply in the United States
It’s not very expensive to get out of the ground

What’s bad
Mining it causes land and water pollution
Underground mine explosions kill miners
It gives off soot when burned which causes health problems
It releases greenhouse gases when mined and and burned

A home covered in coal dust, Marmet, West Virginia. PHOTO: Antrim Caskey
A home covered in coal dust, Marmet, West Virginia. PHOTO: Antrim Caskey

Natural gas (methane): found with oil and in rock formations below the earth’s surface

What’s good
There’s a large supply in the United States
It’s easy to transport through pipelines

What’s bad
Greenhouse gases are released when it is produced, transported and burned
There is a risk of accidents during production, like the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010
It requires large amounts of water and toxic chemicals when produced from shale rock (called “fracking”)

A yellow-to-black liquid found underground

What’s good
It’s easy to get out of the ground and to transport through pipelines and by ship

What’s bad
It produces carbon dioxide when burned
Spills at oil wells and pipelines pollute land and water

energy that is released by splitting uranium atoms

What’s good

It produces less greenhouse gases per energy unit than fossil fuels
It can be produced where the energy is needed
There is a large supply of uranium fuel

What’s bad
It produces radioactive waste with no method of safe disposal
There is a risk of radioactive leaks into air, water and soil that lead to cancer in humans
Expensive insurance against accidents is paid for by the federal government, not by the energy companies



These energy sources are continuously produced and don’t run out. Some renewable sources produce greenhouse gases, but the amount is less than for fossil fuels for the same amount of energy produced.

Wind: energy produced from wind when it turns the blades of a wind turbine (windmill)

What’s good
It can be located where energy is needed
It doesn’t pollute the air or water

What’s bad
Wind speed varies from place to place and at different times of the year
It can cause injury and death to birds and bats

Hydropower: energy produced from water flowing in a river or over a dam

What’s good

There is a big supply of it in the United States
It’s less polluting than fossil fuels

What’s bad
Supply is concentrated in a few states in the Northwest
Reservoirs behind dams produce greenhouse gases
Dams and reservoirs disrupt fish migrations and may require people to move from their homes

burning wood, crops (like corn or sugar) or trash
What’s good
There is a lot of fuel
It reduces trash sent to landfills

What’s bad
When corn is grown to burn for energy, it is not used as food for people or animals
Power plants to burn biomass or trash cleanly are expensive to build

Image: “Energy Kids” (

Geothermal: energy that comes from the heat of the earth’s core

What’s good
There is an unlimited and constant supply of non-polluting heat
It can be produced almost anywhere

What’s bad
It can only be used where it is produced
It’s expensive to access deep supplies of this energy source

Solar: energy that comes from the sun can be used directly (heat) or to produce electricity

What’s good
There is an endless and predictable supply
It does not pollute

What’s bad
Collecting it requires a large area, such as the desert
Energy must be transported long distances to users