Study: Renewables Could Produce 80% of Our Electricity by 2050

This has to be some of the more encouraging news I’ve heard in a while. A report released last week by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), called the Renewable Energy Futures Study, found that using renewables to provide the lion’s share of our electricity by 2050, without requiring any technological breakthroughs is a  reasonable proposition.

In fact, here is one of the key findings of the study.

“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.”

This validates similar claims made in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 2011 book, Reinventing Fire.

The NREL study, which used an hourly simulation analysis, evaluated a number of scenarios ranging from 30 percent to 90 percent, before settling on 80 percent as a reasonable, if ambitious, target. Of course it won’t be easy, and we won’t get there without real effort. Even if the technology doesn’t need a breakthrough to reach that goal, other things, such as business models, regulations, financing and infrastructure just might.

Renewables accounted for 10 percent of all electricity in 2010 (plus an additional 2 percent, mostly hydro, imported from Canada) with wind solar and others continuing to grow rapidly. In the 80 percent scenario, solar and wind, both of which are variable, unsteady sources, combine to contribute close to 50 percent of all electric power.

In order to accommodate this high level of variability, we will need a more flexible electric system (i.e. grid) that is capable of dynamically meeting the supply-demand balance in a world that relies heavily on renewables. This will include things like smart grid, demand forecasting, more flexible and responsive conventional plants (e.g. GE FlexEfficiency), grid storage (including V2G), and increased operational coordination.

The results achieved were found to be “consistent for a wide range of assumed conditions that constrained transmission expansion, grid flexibility, and renewable resource availability.”

Given the abundance and diversity of renewable resources in this country, there are multiple pathways by which this level of contribution might occur, which promises a robust and resilient energy future, if we can find the political will to overcome the many non-technological barriers that stand in the way.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • All regions of the United States could contribute substantial renewable electricity supply in 2050, consistent with their local renewable resource base.
  • Higher than current renewable growth rates will be required to achieve this level, but not higher than what has been achieved elsewhere.
  • Electricity supply and demand can be balanced in every hour of the year in each region with nearly 80 percent electricity from renewable resources,
  • Additional challenges to power system planning and operation would arise, including management of low-demand periods and curtailment of excess electricity generation.
  • Additional transmission infrastructure will be required.
  • The direct incremental cost associated with high renewable generation is comparable to published cost estimates of other clean energy scenarios.

The study is not without its critics. However, they might not be who you expect them to be. Brad Plumer, writing for the Washington Post, suggests that NREL might be wildly underestimating the potential of solar and wind energy, which have been growing exponentially since 2001. He claims that estimates from official agencies, like the IEA, consistently underestimate the potential of renewables. Could that be because of cozy relationships that representatives might have with the utility industry?

Rocky Mountain Institute’s James Newcomb, has a different concern. Though he gives high praise to the report, calling it “rigorous and deep,” he points out that it maintains a business-as-usual assumption when it comes to the business model that utilities will use in the future. Specifically, he is concerned that the role of distributed generation, which could fundamentally revise the electric utility business, has not been adequately represented in the study. RMI’s book, Reinventing Fire, which came out last fall, made the same prediction of 80 percent renewables by 2050 achievable by two different pathways: one, similar to the NREL study, following a centralized utility model, while the second path, shows a more distributed approach.

The distributed approach mirrors the view of futurist Jeremy Rifkin, who claims in his book, The Third Industrial Revolution, that the use of distributed energy, will lead to a “democratization of energy” that could fundamentally transform our society.

[Image credit: Techie Kev: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

6 responses

  1. Denmark 100% renewable energy strategy

    an alternative including
    –  using District Heating (DH) networks to store excess renewable electricity (wind turbines, PV…) that is in excess of instantaneous grid demand as heat. Heat pumps are used to maximise efficiency and low cost large insulated ponds (or subterrain warm aquafiers, building heat stockage piles…)  are used as inter-seasonal storage. District Heating is optimised with low loss twin or three pipe insulated combined supply and return, domestic cold water supply cooled heat exchanger at point of use, large surface area radiators or embedded wall/ floor emitters (in slab or in plaster or plasterboard) all to minimise DH network supply/ retun temperatures to 55/25 C and thus maximise efficiency.
    Denmark Heat Plan (pdfs ~4Mb),%20Low%20Carbon%20Urban%20Heating,%20Heat%20Plan%20Denmark.pdf

    – whilst not the most efficient and it degrades the quality of energy (electricity to thermal) it is a low cost storage method for renewables, no energy is wasted, we have sufficient heating (or cooling) demand from buildings… even low energy demand buildings (<42kWh/m2.yr) in suburban low densities, and higher density very low energy buildings (<15kWh/m2.yr Passivhaus/Minergie-P standard) will work economically with Disrict Heating.
    – introduce more renewable cogeneration plant eg biomass, biogaz, large low temperature solar thermal collector fields to service district heating,…
    – lower cost option than expensive oversized all electric smart grid and electric storage and reconversion efficiency losses from pumped hydro 80%, pressurised air 75%, various battery or chemical stockage H2 or SNG 60%, cryogenic heat engine 75%, other heat engine devices 75%, etc.
    – use other storage in descending order according to efficiency and cost when and as needed with production of high energy density fuels particulary for transport
    – the variable heat/electricity cogeneration plant using a variety of
    fuels (but probably SNG synthetic natural gas from biogas or
    electrolysis H2+ CO2 .sabatier reaction) will be used occasionally as
    peak plant and occasionally during renewable energy low production
    – maximise efficiency everywhere … thermally renovate existing building stock, etc….at least 30 % cut easily possible with efficiency


    John Daglish

  2. Consider reading: The Exaggerated Promise of Renewable Energy


    The results may disappoint my fellow solar
    enthusiasts because it suggests that only 13% of our electric energy will come
    from solar. Distributed solar enthusiasts (who favor photovoltaic solar panels
    on rooftops) will be further disappointed because half of that 13% will come
    from water-sucking centralized concentrated solar thermal power plants, many
    located in desert ecosystems, leaving only about 6% for solar panels on
    rooftops, of which many will probably not be on rooftops but in centralized
    power plants, probably displacing ecosystems or crops.


    The study also (inadvertently) provides evidence that
    renewable energy will be a minority player in humanity’s energy portfolio.

    1. Yes, electric is only 40% of total energy, but who said that zero % of the rest comes from renewables? There are numerous renewable technologies being developed for transportation (e.g. algae, and of course, ethanol) and for heating (solar, biogas, geothermal). That’s not to mention a considerable percentage of transportation that will migrate to electric power by then, thereby increasing that 40% number. To call a technology non-renewable because the equipment wears out is pretty ridiculous. Renewable means that the source of the energy can be replenished indefinitely, provided, of course that it is managed properly. The report is a technical assessment only, which says it could be done, provided the necessary changes are made to the system. The biggest threat to this being realized right now, besides the resistance of entrenched money, is the artificially low natural gas prices.

  3. “… but who said that zero % of the rest comes from renewables?…”

    Meeting 80% of electric power from renewables is very unlikely, let alone the other 68% of our energy needs.

    My article addresses all of your other remarks/straw men. Consider reading it.

    It does not assume an energy source is not renewable just because the machines used to extract it have to be maintained–using wind turbines and solar panels as examples.

    It discusses that 40% of our corn is already going to ethanol, links to an expert article on why there is no cellulosic or algae biofuels.

    I specifically discuss the fact that more electricity will be needed to electrify transport and industry, which is why their estimate of electric power demand is so low, which would simply decrease the “percent” of electric power renewables could provide, not changing the 68% total energy “not” provided by renewables at all.

    I wrote the article in an attempt to provide a more realistic expectation of renewables. Like nuclear, they will never be too cheap to meter. The false expectations are already leading to costly mistakes about future energy policy. It’s all a matter of degree.

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