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Thinking Big: 80 Percent Renewables Is Possible By 2050

Thinking Big: 80 Percent Renewables Is Possible By 2050
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Written by Adam James, Bracken Hendricks

Americans have always prided themselves on thinking big. When it comes to energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has given big-thinkers everywhere a shot in the arm with a new study that concludes:

“Renewable energy sources, accessed with commercially available technologies, could adequately supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while balancing supply and demand at the hourly level.”

This is a very big finding from one of the world’s most credible experts on advanced energy technologies. This detailed analysis makes clear that renewable energy is here, it is ready, and it can provide a very large share of the energy we need to run an advanced, prosperous and growing economy. The remaining question is whether we are ready to take the leadership to seize this opportunity.

Before we go into the high-level findings and some of the more impressive details, there are a few observations.

The first is on what the NREL study says about what we don’t need to hit 80 percent renewables.

We don’t need some crazy cool new technology or some groundbreaking invention. We aren’t waiting on the scientific community to make some breakthrough. Would revolutions in storage and batteries help us reach 100% renewable energy? Sure. But this 80 percent by 2050 target is possible with commercially available technology. That’s a big deal.

The second is about what this study shows we do need to make this renewable energy future a reality.

We need to transform our thinking about modernizing our electricity system — on everything from system planning and flexibility, to new business models and market rules. America needs to take the same approach it took with every other strategic infrastructure upgrade that unlocked economic growth in our past. From building railroads and highways to rural electrification, we focused our policies on capturing the scope and potential payoff of a major national project. That included providing the incentives to businesses and consumers through smart policy to lift all boats and increase economic productivity.

So before the dirty details: kudos to NREL for taking a look at what is possible and for laying out something visionary. The national debate on building a renewable energy future desperately needs to be re-focused and this report is a great step in that direction — making it clear that bold ambition is readily achievable.

Later this month, the Center for American Progress will also release a report on the convergence of renewable electricity, energy efficiency and smart grid technology, and how these technologies together represent a state change in our national energy infrastructure. Our piece on the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) revolution builds on NREL’s findings to lay out a framework for this national energy transformation.

High-Level Findings

The executive summary of the NREL report highlights a few key findings:

  • We Can Deploy Lots and Lots of Renewables Nationwide: 80 percent of U.S. electricity could be generated from renewable sources by 2050. Every region in the U.S. would contribute substantially to the RE base, in a way that is consistent with local resources.
  • Multiple Technology Pathways Exist to Get Us There: Any existing constraints on transmission capacity, flexibility, and resource availability can be compensated with other resources, technologies, and approaches that balance loads and improve reliability.
  • The Lights Will Stay On: Electricity supply and demand can be balanced hourly in the 80 percent renewables scenario, event with 50 percent coming from variable generation. Ironically, the challenges are not from renewables failing to produce, but rather mainly involve managing low-demand periods and curtailment of excess generation.
  • Technology Advances and New Ideas Wanted: Increasing the system flexibility is crucial. This will require new technology advances, new operating procedures, new business models, and new market rules which are conducive to increased flexibility.
  • More Transmission Infrastructure Needed: It is absolutely necessary to build new transmission if this renewable future is going to be a reality.

All these points indicate that the electricity system is not struggling with a lack of technology; it is suffering from a classic failure of imagination and foresight in implementation. Aside from new transmission and some technological advances, the the current roadblocks are due to entrenched business models and market rules that are not designed to reward efficiency, integration, or new entrants into the generation market. It hasn’t always been this way. At its best, America has been a leader in the development of forward thinking national infrastructures. In this report, NREL points the way toward continued leadership.

What could the 2050 electricity mix look like?

The NREL study went through several different renewable penetration scenarios evaluated against a baseline. The baseline scenario was the business-as-usual path where we continue phase out support for renewables and the energy mix is mostly dominated by fossil fuels. The other scenarios show a variety of levels of renewable penetration, starting with 30 percent RE and continuing up in 10 percent increments to 90 percent RE.

Here’s a breakdown the possible renewable generation mixes for 2050:

Three of the more interesting conclusions from this graph are:

  • Wind and Solar are Big Winners: Wind stands to gain the most in terms of absolute KWh from NRELs scenarios- largely at the expense of coal and natural gas. Solar, however, has the largest percentage increase across the board.
  • Nuclear Remains Pretty Stable in All Cases: Nuclear power will remain a relatively consistent proportion of the energy mix under all scenarios; however, it won’t see any new growth in base load power plant construction.
  • Ending Reliance on Fossil Fuels is Possible: Even with the shale gas boom in the United States, these models show natural gas could play a smaller role in the total energy mix than some analysts are predicting. Also, technological stability can be maintained across the overall system with declining coal generation.

Regionally Specific Solutions: Doing What You Do Best

Another great breakdown from the NREL report is how every region will contribute its own blend of renewables to the national mix. Obviously, different areas have different strengths and this graph does an excellent job of showing precisely what those are:

Here you can see concentrated solar power (CSP) in the Southwest, wind in the Central region, and biomass in the Southeast playing dominant roles. Every area plays to its strengths, and is woven together to create a more diverse, reliable and flexible energy system nationwide.

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Photo: twicepix/flickr

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1:09PM PDT on Sep 16, 2012

We would be 80% renewable now, if Congress had done their job years ago.

5:17AM PDT on Jul 3, 2012

To avoid destroying agriculture and thus civilization, we need NOT ONLY to achieve net-zero by 2030, but ALSO to capture and store enough carbon to reduce the ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere to somewhere between 300 and 350 ppm also by 2030.

4:05AM PDT on Jul 3, 2012


1:21AM PDT on Jul 3, 2012

Very hopeful!

10:28PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

Not just the US but the whole world should be 80% .
Here in the arabian states with sunshine 365, solar should be mandatory, and the wind blows well everday, wind power too. Yet they are reliant on oil, because it is cheap and they have a monopoly.

7:16PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

This is exactly what we need to do. Start reducing carbon emissions this year.

3:58PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

The fossil fuel companies use "political payola" (bribes) to influence a majority in Congress to create and sustain pollution practices ...while also sustaining inefficient, "dirty energy" policies that help optimize the profits of these corrupt, wealthy corporations. A new Constitutional Convention is needed to force Congress to reform and remove our elected representatives from the control of corrupt special interests. The solution is simple, but it requires Americans to now demand such a solution.

12:48PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012


7:43AM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

thank you for the article

6:11AM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

let's hope

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