Report examines what needs to happen to achieve 80% renewables by 2050

How much renewable energy can the United States accommodate over the coming decades is the subject of a new report published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The Renewable Electricity Futures Study (RE Futures) is an initial investigation of the extent to which renewable energy supply can meet the electricity demands of the continental U.S. This study explores the implications and challenges of very high renewable electricity generation levels—from 30% up to 90%, focusing on 80%, of all U.S. electricity generation from renewable technologies—in 2050.

At such high levels of renewable electricity generation, the unique characteristics of some renewable resources, specifically geographical distribution and variability and uncertainty in output, pose challenges to the operability of the nation’s electric system.

  • Renewable 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 country.
  • Increased electric system flexibility, needed to enable electricity supply-demand balance with high levels of renewable generation, can come from a portfolio of supply- and demand-side options, including flexible conventional generation, grid storage, new transmission, more responsive loads, and changes in power system operations.
  • The abundance and diversity of U.S. renewable energy resources can support multiple combinations of renewable technologies that result in deep reductions in electric sector greenhouse gas emissions and water use.
  • The direct incremental cost associated with high renewable generation is comparable to published cost estimates of other clean energy scenarios. Improvement in the cost and performance of renewable technologies is the most impactful lever for reducing this incremental cost.

In recent years, variable renewable electricity generation capacity in the United States has increased considerably. Wind capacity, for example, has increased from 2.6 GW in 2000 to 40 GW in 2010, while solar capacity has also begun to grow rapidly.

Overall, renewable energy contributed about 10% of total power-sector U.S. electricity supply in 2010 (6.4% from hydropower, 2.4% from wind energy, 0.7% from biopower, 0.4% from geothermal energy, and 0.05% from solar energy).

The study explores electricity grid integration using models with unprecedented geographic and time resolution for the continental United States to assess whether the U.S. power system can supply electricity to meet customer demand on an hourly basis with high levels of renewable electricity, including variable wind and solar generation.