Renewables could produce 80 percent of U.S. power by 2050 — federal study

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Renewable energy could supply up to 80 percent of the country’s electricity by 2050 if the United States makes major upgrades to the electric grid and implements clean energy policies, according to a federal study released Friday.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that renewables, which currently provide 10 percent of U.S. electricity, could be ramped up if new power lines were built to access geographically dispersed pockets of wind and solar energy. Policies would also need to be imposed to support the construction of new power lines at a cost of more than $8 billion annually, according to the report.

“There’s a lot of political issues,” said Dale Osborn, a consulting adviser for the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, who worked on the report. “All these people have their own political agendas, so just changing things technically won’t solve the problem, but [the report] says that it could be done if you could get past these barriers.”

The study, funded by the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, found that grid operators could increase the amount of renewable sources — hydropower, wind, solar and geothermal — from 130 gigawatts at the end of 2010 to 920 GW by 2050.

Ramping up renewables would push out large amounts of baseload power from nuclear and coal-fired plants, but gas-fired generation would be heavily used to support renewables, the study found. States in the Great Plains, Northwest and Southwest regions would eventually export large amounts of wind and solar power, while new power lines would allow states like Florida and Texas to import electricity, according to the report.

But grid operators and transmission planners would face regulatory hurdles.

Federal and state regulators would need to address siting challenges blocking the construction of long-distance power lines to connect wind resources in the Midwest to population hubs. Solar resources in the southwestern United States would also need to be tapped, and pumped storage, compressed air and dam systems in mountainous regions like the Rocky Mountains must be developed to support such large amounts of variable resources, Osborn said.

“It would cost more money, and you’d have to have some storage, and you’d have to have some curtailment,” he said.

Dan Kammen, a professor of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, said the report shows tapping such a large amount of renewables is possible, even if challenges exist. State and federal regulators currently approving new transmission in a “piecemeal” fashion will need to move faster to resolve siting issues and think more creatively about operating the grid to support renewables, he said.

“Most people who don’t see this high renewables future possible are thinking about the current grid and adding in a small amount of renewables,” he said. “But the grid we want is one where we deploy energy efficiency first, then renewables, and then back them up with storage and back that up with natural gas.”

Get study here.