A report published earlier this week showed that the U.S. can increase renewable energy production, reduce carbon emissions by up to 78 percent below 1990’s levels in 2030 and keep electric costs at roughly where they’re at. The magic bullet, an interstate for the grid, that’s according to new research from NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder.
The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, Illustrated a number of scenarios with a variety of energy mixes showing the potential costs of electricity and the reductions in emissions under those scenarios.
If renewable energy costs were lower and natural gas costs higher, as is expected in the future, the modeled system sliced CO2 emissions by 78 percent from 1990 levels and delivered electricity at 10 cents per kWh. The year 1990 is a standard scientific benchmark for greenhouse gas analysis.
A scenario that included coal yielded lower cost (8.5 cents per kWh), but the highest emissions. “Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years,” said Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder.
Creating such a system would require improvements to the nation’s electric grid that would allow the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy resources to be offset by being able to move electrons to where and when they’re needed most. “Since the sun is shining or winds are blowing somewhere across the United States all of the time, MacDonald theorized that the key to resolving the dilemma of intermittent renewable generation might be to scale up the renewable energy generation system to match the scale of weather systems,” NOAA stated.
MacDonald and four other NOAA scientists built a model that estimates renewable resource potential, energy demand, emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the costs of expanding and operating electricity generation and transmission systems to meet future needs.
“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” said co-lead author Christopher Clack, a physicist and mathematician with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”
The model even looked at scenarios where renewable energy is more expensive than experts project and found that the model still produced a system that cuts CO2 emissions 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour.
One of the keys to delivering the energy grid of the future is upgrading the transmission system with a new, highly efficient, high-voltage direct-current transmission grid (HVDC) that would supplement the current electric grid. The model found that investing in efficient, long-distance transmission, which MacDonald likened to an interstate system, was key to keeping costs low.
“With an ‘interstate for electrons’, renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” he said. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”Tweet