The United States could be getting 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050 and all it would take is doubling the pace for installing renewable energy sources and then doubling it again and somewhere between $320 billion and $1 trillion – on top of a baseline $4 trillion in investments.
Of course, the costs and the pace of renewable energy will depend upon the demands for power and the rate of technological change for wind, solar and geothermal power.
Those, in a gross over-simplification, are the findings of the “Renewable Electricity Futures Study” – a monumental, four-volume, 865-page opus – by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.
The “80 percent by 2050” made a little bit of a pop in the news, but reporters moved on pretty quickly, for truth told, this study wasn’t written for journalists but policymakers.
The report is an intricate assembly of scenarios: low-demand, high-demand, 30 percent renewable energy to 90 percent renewable. Even the central 80 percent scenario comes in three flavors – no technological improvement, incremental improvement and evolutionary technology – under three different transmission scenarios.
There isn’t a conclusion. There isn’t a bottom line. That makes it hard on journalists. But at least one intrepid reporter has journeyed into the tall grass – though in the spirit of full disclosure he did zip through Volume 4 “Bulk Electric Power System: Operations and Transmission” just to see who did it.
And here’s what I’ve gleaned:
Even if nothing much is done and no new policies enacted – based on the campaign’s policy document I’ll call this the Mitt option – renewable energy will grow from 12 percent of power supply in 2010 to 20 percent in 2050.
“High levels of renewable electricity penetration in the United States would be demanding but achievable,” the report notes and adds the caveat that “any of the scenarios will depend on the decisions made over the next 40 year.”
To get to 80 percent will require doubling and then quadrupling the installation rate of renewable capacity – adding 20 GW a year for the next 20 years and then 45 GW a year to 2050. That compares with 11 GW of renewable capacity installed in 2009 and 7 GW in 2010.
Of the many variables in the study the one that stood out as having the biggest cost impacts was the rate of technological change. “What drives the incremental costs is technology,” Trieu Mai, one of the report’s authors said in an interview. “The other costs have a small effect compared to technology drivers.”
Under one “no technological improvement scenario” for 80 percent renewable the costs to the electric sector would be $1 trillion. Under the same “evolutionary technology” scenario costs would be $320 billion.
The cost of solar and wind power have been dropping and in some cases wind is already competitive with fossil fuel generation, so the “no improvement scenario” is probably overly conservative. The middle “incremental” technology improvement scenario estimates a cost of $870 billion.
The average annual investment required for this new transmission infrastructure, along with interconnections, ranged from $5.7 billion to $8.4 billion a year from 2011 through 2050. Between 1995 and 2008 the U.S. utility industry was spending $2 billion to $9 billion a year – just a little lower that the projected range.
The impact on electricity rates varies with the scenarios but the range is $130 to $161 a megawatt-hour compared with a average business-as-usual baseline rate of $111 – on the low end a 21 percent increase to transform the nation’s electricity system.
The average household uses about 700 kilowatt-hours a month so if that cost was passed on it translates into an extra $13.30 on the monthly bill. At the upper end it is a consumer-unfriendly $35 extra a month.
As to what renewable energy technologies are deployed – it depends upon the scenario, stop me if I’ve said that before.
Generally, wind power gets the biggest deployment, followed by hydropower, biomass and solar. If the demand for electricity – which has been flat since the recession – ramps up the use a solar jumps.
In the scenario with incremental improvement in renewable energy technology, wind energy supply is significant in most regions, but was most prominent in the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Central, Northwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions. Solar energy was found to deploy most substantially in the Southwest, dominated by utility-scale concentration solar technology, followed by California and Texas, with photovoltaics as well as concentrating solar, and then by Florida and the Southeast region. Biomass supply would be most significant in the Great Plains, Great Lakes, Central, and Southeast region.
To see how and where renewable power supplies will grow, check out this great interactive map.
So what have we learned?
• That it will take construction of renewable energy facilities at a pace far beyond that the county has seen to get to 80 percent – and it will be a lot easier if demand for electricity starts growing again.
• That the cost of the transition will depend most on the pace of improvements in renewable energy technologies – but at the low-end with little technology innovation and low growth in electricity demand it becomes a much more expensive proposition to get to 80 percent.
• What renewable energy resources would be deployed will vary region to region.
One element I haven’t gone into here is the some of the analysis of how the electricity system manages such high levels of renewable energy, which in cases such as wind and solar, are intermittent. Volume II of the study looks at storage technologies – perhaps for another day.
“We really focused on the technical issues of integrating that much renewable energy,” NREL’s Mai said. “If you are going to transform the power sector it is going to cost something over doing nothing. But that wasn’t the focus so, perhaps our cost projections are less optimistic.”
There are also some eye-opening numbers on cost and performance of different types of generation in a support study, but those are definitely for a blog post to come. I think any of us who got this far are NRELed out.