Philip Warburg is the author of Harvest the Wind: America's Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has just released a study of enormous importance. In its four-volume Renewable Electricity Futures Study, NREL carefully examines the role that wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, and ocean energy can play in shifting U.S. power generation to renewable energy resources.
NREL's methodology is painstaking and its conclusion is unambiguous: "[R]enewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States." Nearly 50% of our overall power needs by that year can be supplied by wind and solar photovoltaics, the study team predicts.
Along with looking at the abundance of renewable power resources within our reach, NREL focuses on the need to expand our grid to tap those resources where they are most abundant, often in remote land areas and off our shores. The study also probes the importance of smarter demand management and a stepped-up investment in hydro, battery and other storage technologies that can make the best use of variable sources of power like wind and solar.
Three NREL infographics dramatize key aspects of the pathway to a U.S. energy future where renewable resources supplant fossil and nuclear power. The first shows the distribution and intensity of different power sources across the continental United States, taking viewers from 2010, when coal, gas, and nuclear dominate, to 2050, when wind, solar, and other renewables prevail. The second uses pulsing orbs of different colors to reflect the hour-to-hour availability and use of different power resources in 2050. Then, in the third visualization, a macro view of our transmission grid tracks the hourly flow of electrons across the U.S. from major sources of supply ("power exporters") to major centers of demand ("power importers") from January to December 2050. All three infographics can be accessed on the Futures Study home page.
This far-reaching study goes a long way toward exploding the myth that electricity generated by renewable energy is destined to play second fiddle to traditional U.S. fossil fuel and nuclear power sources.