The majority of Americans see global climate change as a major threat, right up there with infectious diseases, terrorism and nuclear weapons, according to Pew Research Center.
The U.S. has a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Still, about two-thirds of adults in the U.S. don’t think the federal government is doing enough to protect the environment. Despite a 90% increase in renewable energy usage over the last 20 years, solar and wind — the two fastest-growing renewable sources — only contribute 4.6% of the total energy used in this country.
To find out which states are doing the most to combat the climate crisis, the ConsumerAffairs Research Team aggregated the latest available public data to analyze each state’s carbon emissions, waste, recycling, composting and energy generation from renewable and nuclear sources.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
- Washington is the greenest state, according to our scoring system. It stands out for its significantly higher conventional hydroelectric power generation and overall renewable energy production. It’s followed by Oregon, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
- West Virginia is the least-green state, with one of the worst scores for renewable energy production and carbon emissions. It’s followed by Louisiana, Wyoming, Hawaii and Indiana.
- South Dakota, Washington and Vermont have the highest percentage of renewable power generation.
- Delaware, West Virginia and Kentucky have the lowest percentage of renewable power generation.
For our rankings, we analyzed data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compare each state's percentage of energy from renewables and emissions. We also examined waste data from a study from Columbia University. Read our full methodology for more information.
The 10 greenest states
We ranked all 50 states on eco-friendliness based on the percentage of total energy they get from renewable and nuclear sources, carbon emissions per capita, municipal solid waste generated per capita and percentage of waste that's either recycled or composted. Here are the top 10, with a breakdown of each state’s numbers and clean energy incentives.
Despite Washington’s reputation for cloudy skies, it has ample incentives for residential and commercial solar power generation.
“We invested in a solar energy system for our home because of environmental and utility cost benefits,” a Friday Harbor resident told us. They said they took advantage of the 30% federal solar tax credit and that “OPALCO (Orcas Power & Light Co-op) supports net metering, so we now offset 100% of our yearly electric-grid consumption.”
Power generation is measured in megawatt-hours.
A planned hydropower project in Central Washington is projected to generate 1,200 megawatts of power — enough electricity for half a million homes. The pumped-storage hydropower production would produce the same amount of energy as 50,000 acres of solar panels or 7,000 acres of wind turbines, according to Crosscut.
- Renewable power generation: 84.3%
- Carbon emissions: 1.09 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 1.29 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 50%
- Clean energy incentives:WSU Energy Program, zero emission vehicle grants, Washington State production incentive program
Oregon is among the states with the lowest per capita carbon footprint. It doesn’t generate any power from coal.
Oregon’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires that 50% of the state's electricity use come from renewable resources by 2040. In 2021, the state Legislature passed a bill to allocate an extra $10 million for the Oregon Solar + Storage Rebate Program. Depending on your income, rebates cover up to 40% to 60% of the net cost to install a solar electric system or paired solar and storage system.
The environmental impact is a major reason to go solar, but many Beaver State residents are also motivated by lower monthly bills, according to our phone surveys. However, many people warned that Oregonians should verify their eligibility for incentive programs before committing to going solar to avoid saving less than they expect.
“We were quoted a price for our solar that included a generous credit from the city for installing solar," an Ashland resident said earlier this year. "However, the city has decided that only two of our 23 panels counts for the credit.”
That's not the only unexpected issue with solar panels in the state, however — we were surprised to learn that some areas have issues with pigeons nesting under solar panels.
“I am a little worried about the long-term effect of pigeon poop and pigeon nests,” one Portland resident told us.
- Renewable power generation: 70.6%
- Carbon emissions: 0.97 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 1.02 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 46.8%
- Clean energy incentives: Oregon Solar + Storage Rebate Program, Biomass Tax Credits
3. New Hampshire
The greenest of the eastern states, New Hampshire, generates most of its renewable energy from hydroelectric power, biomass and wind.
Green manufacturing is a significant focus in the Granite State, and it appears to be working. By next year, Stonyfield Organic, the yogurt company based in Londonderry, is on track to make its plant 100% dependent on renewable energy.
Renewable energy credits (RECs) are “the currency of a regional renewable energy market administered by ISO-New England and the New England Power Pool (NEPOOL),” according to New Hampshire Electric Co-op (NHEC). Any facility in New England can qualify to produce RECs as long as it complies with the state’s requirements for Class I, II, III or IV RECs.
38 states have mandatory net metering rules.
NH Public Utilities Commission provides for net metering, which means you can get credit for on-site electricity generation (solar photovoltaic or wind turbine installation, for example) if your production exceeds consumption.
Homeowners with a solar panel system of 10 kilowatts or less can qualify for a small residential solar incentive program. There’s also a city-level property tax exemption for going solar in Nashua, Derry and elsewhere.
- Renewable power generation: 72.5%
- Carbon emissions: 1.07 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 0.87 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 42.9%
- Clean energy incentives: New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, New Hampshire Office of Strategic Initiatives and New Hampshire Electric Co-op
With the lowest total power generation from nonrenewable energy sources in the U.S, The Green Mountain State lives up to its name too. Vermont also has the lowest amount of waste disposal in the U.S.
The 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan set up a road map for the state to get 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, and it appears to be on track.
Last year, nearly 100% of electricity generated in Vermont came from renewable sources, which is more than any other state can claim. More than half of utility-scale in-state generation came from conventional hydroelectric power.
Vermonters still consume about three times more energy than they produce, but the state’s total energy consumption is the smallest of all states.
State officials put a moratorium on wind and solar projects in northern Vermont earlier due to capacity issues with transmission lines, according to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
- Renewable power generation: 81.9%
- Carbon emissions: 0.99 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 0.85 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 29.2%
- Clean energy incentives: Efficiency Vermont, Burlington Electric Department, Vermont Gas and Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund
Maine ranks well in all the criteria investigated and rounds out the top five greenest states. It has the lowest amount of landfill waste of all states. The Pine Tree State is aiming for 100% renewable energy usage by 2050 with a nearer-term goal of 80% by 2030.
Incentives are available for geothermal systems, electric vehicles, heat pumps, insulation upgrades and more. Residents have access to home energy loans to pay for some upgrades — up to $15,000 over 10 years with no fees and low interest rates.
The northern part of the state has tremendous potential for generating wind energy. Earlier this year, Maine’s governor signed a bill proposing a transmission line to carry wind energy from Aroostook County to New England’s regional electric grid.
Maine is also the very first state to pass a law that charges corporations for not using sustainable packaging materials.
- Renewable power generation: 58.7%
- Carbon emissions: 1.14 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 1.06 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 51.5%
- Clean energy incentives: Efficiency Maine
Over the last decade, Minnesota has more than doubled renewable energy generation, largely thanks to wind energy. At the same time, nuclear power generation remains relatively flat.
Today, the Land of 10,000 Lakes is one of the top states in wind power generation. Most of the wind farms are located in the state’s southwestern prairies.
In addition to wind, the main sources of electricity in the state are solar energy, hydropower and biomass. Minnesota is also one of the top ethanol-producing states — its abundant cornfields produce what is perhaps its most valuable crop.
- Renewable power generation: 55.7%
- Carbon emissions: 1.69 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 1.07 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 48.7%
- Clean energy incentives: Minnesota Department of Commerce
California generates the most solar and geothermal power of any state in the U.S. Californians are also pretty good at recycling, though some of the larger cities rank poorly on air and water quality. Interestingly, Los Angeles has ambitious goals to be the first major carbon-free city in the U.S.
Why are people in California going solar? Utility bills are expensive, especially in the desert. One Rancho Mirage resident went solar because they didn’t want to be “so conservative” with their air conditioning: “That was probably the biggest thing 'cause everybody was telling me how here in the desert, the air conditioning bills could be $400, $500, $600, and I didn't want that.”
1 kWh = amount of energy needed to light a 100-watt lightbulb for 10 hours.
“California is kind of crazy. The energy prices are going up. I don’t doubt within five years, we’ll probably be at $1 per kilowatt,” a Chico resident told us in a phone survey.
- Renewable power generation: 52.2%
- Carbon emissions: 0.95 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 1.76 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 53.4%
- Clean energy incentives: California Department of Tax and Fee Administration and the California Energy Commission
8. South Dakota
South Dakota has the highest percentage of renewable power generation in the U.S. More than four-fifths of electricity generated in the state is supplied by renewable resources, mostly from hydropower and wind.
As of early 2021, South Dakota had 22 active wind farms statewide and more than 2,600 megawatts of wind energy capacity. Other renewable energy sources include solar, biomass and geothermal. South Dakota has some of the best wind resources and decent solar potential, especially in the southwestern part of the state.
The state’s Legislature established a voluntary renewable portfolio objective in 2008. Since then, financial incentives and technical resources have encouraged residents to use and generate energy efficiently.
It's worth noting that South Dakota doesn’t have any net metering rules, and you're typically responsible for interconnection costs.
- Renewable power generation: 85.5%
- Carbon emissions: 1.81 metric tons per capita
- Waste generation: 1.05 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 25.2%
- Clean energy incentives: South Dakota Public Utilities Commission
Maryland has a relatively low per capita carbon footprint and high percentage of recycling and composting. However, it ranks in the middle of the pack for percentage of power generation from renewable sources and in the bottom half for waste generated per capita.
The state's solar energy production has increased in recent years, according to the EIA. Why are Marylanders going solar? “Certainly the environment and cost, but not exclusively cost, and adding value to our home too by getting the new roof and getting the solar,” according to one Columbia resident.
Maryland also has one of the best investment return rates (IRR) on owned solar energy systems, according to Vivint Solar.
- Renewable power generation: 49%
- Carbon emissions: 1 metric ton per capita
- Waste generation: 1.2 tons per person
- Waste recycled or composted: 39.2%
- Clean energy incentives: Residential Clean Energy Rebate Program, Maryland Energy Administration
10. New Jersey
After taking the No. 1 spot in our rankings for the safest states in the U.S., New Jersey also gets a place on our greenest states list. In 2020 the Garden State was third in the U.S. in electricity production from small-scale solar power systems, according to the EIA.
A resident in East Brunswick who installed a panel system said, “It's definitely been great knowing that I now have solar energy to power my home. It was just kind of a long process between PSE&G and Sunrun to get that whole, I think it's called the PO, Permission to Operate, completed.”
With the exception of some red tape, many New Jersey residents we surveyed about installing solar panels said they would recommend it to a friend or family member.
Greenest states, ranked
Primary factors used to generate rankings included each state’s percentage of renewable energy generation, carbon emissions per capita, solid waste generated per capita and the percentage of waste that was recycled or composted. Read our full methodology for more about these rankings. Also, learn about solar panel costs by state.
|Overall state ranking||Renewable and nuclear power generation score||Emissions per capita score||Waste per capita score||Waste recycled or composted score|
|3. New Hampshire||18.2||13.6||13||14.8|
|8. South Dakota||21.4||9.3||11.6||8.7|
|10. New Jersey||13.7||12.6||10.1||13.9|
|11. New York||14.6||14.8||12.9||6.8|
|12. South Carolina||15.6||11.3||12.4||8.8|
|18. North Carolina||12||13||12.4||5.4|
|19. Washington, D.C.||9.2||17.4||13.9||1.9|
|29. Rhode Island||2.9||13.5||12.7||4.9|
|32. New Mexico||9.4||6.8||10.8||5.9|
|41. North Dakota||10.2||0||9||9.6|
|51. West Virginia||1.3||0||10.7||5.5|
Greenest states at a glance
|Most eco-friendly states||Least eco-friendly states|
|1. Washington||1. West Virginia|
|2. Oregon||2. Louisiana|
|3. New Hampshire||3. Wyoming|
|4. Vermont||4. Hawaii|
|5. Maine||5. Indiana|
|6. Minnesota||6. Alaska|
|7. California||7. Mississippi|
|8. South Dakota||8. Kentucky|
|9. Maryland||9. Ohio|
|10. New Jersey||10. Oklahoma|
To determine the greenest states, we focused on four factors: percentage of energy use from renewable and nuclear sources, carbon emissions per capita, municipal solid waste generated per person and the percentage of waste that’s recycled or composted.
About 78% of energy in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels.
- Percent of the total energy generated by renewable resources and nuclear factors in energy from geothermal, conventionalhydroelectric, nuclear, solar thermal, photovoltaic, wind and biomass sources. Nuclear is included because of the low carbon output. The data (from the EIA) was taken from January to June of 2021.
- Carbon emissions per capita considers carbon emissions from fossil fuel usage as a rough approximation of the overall carbon emissions of a state from other sources. Emissions and population data is from 2018 and taken from the EPA. Figures are in metric tons per capita.
- Municipal solid waste generated per capita uses solid waste disposal data published in 2014 by the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University. In some cases where data was missing, numbers are taken from earlier years. The per capita numbers are in tons per person. Data and population numbers are from 2011.
- Percent of waste that is recycled or composted is also based on the data in the Columbia University municipal solid waste study.
Each state was given a score for each of these four categories based on its relation to the national average. 10 is equivalent to the average — higher than 10 means better, and lower than 10 means worse. We then added the four scores together to get a total score, which we used to determine the greenest states.
- Article sources
- ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
- Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Net Generation by State by Type of Producer by Energy Source.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2021.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “State CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuel Combustion, 1990-2018.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2021.
- Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University, “Generation and Disposition of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States — A National Survey.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2021.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2021.
- Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, “U.S. Renewable Energy.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2021.
- Pew Research Center, “Americans See Spread of Disease as Top International Threat, Along With Terrorism, Nuclear Weapons, Cyberattacks.” Accessed Nov. 9, 2021.
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