NREL: 80% renewable energy by 2050 technically possible

A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) indicates that renewable energy 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,” but identifies numerous obstacles that must be overcome before that future can become a reality.

The 854-page Renewable Electricity Futures study, which was issued in four volumes, included hydropower as well as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass as renewable sources of energy. In the “80%-by-2050” scenario, variable generation from wind and solar technologies accounted for 48% of total generation.

The study concluded that the technology necessary to achieve 80% renewable penetration is available today but stated that the electricity system itself and the way it is operated would need to be transformed.

The transformation would have to include a system that includes “flexible conventional generation and grid storage, additions of transmission, more responsive loads, and changes in power system operations,” and “would likely rely on the development and adoption of technology advances, new operating procedures, evolved business models, and new market rules,” according to the study.

Each of these areas brings challenges, which the report detailed but would not predict the potential for successfully meeting.

Technical challenges were seen as generally the most likely to be overcome, though such challenges ranged from the industry’s existing ability to build an “expanded multi-state transmission infrastructure to transmit renewable energy” to undefined “future technological advances.”

Regulatory challenges were seen as the more difficult to predict. The report referred to future regulatory and policy decisions and, in particular, the uncertainty those considerations add to the predictions, noting that, “Real-world decisions to dispatch existing power plants, retire old plants, or install new capacity are based on numerous, interlinking factors.”

The study referred to “the many assumptions required about inherently uncertain variables, including … institutional choices, and market conditions.” Because of that inherent uncertainty, the study stopped short of predicting whether the 80%-by-2050 scenario would be achieved.

“The analysis presented in the report represents only an initial set of inquiries on a national scale,” NREL said in the document.

“Additional studies are required to more fully assess the technical, operational, reliability, economic, environmental, social, and institutional implications of high levels of renewable electricity generation, and further explore the nature of the electricity system transformation required to enable such a future,” the study concluded.