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Clean Power renewable energy 2050

Published on July 2nd, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan

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80% Clean, Renewable Energy by 2050: More Than Possible, But Need More Political Will (& Public Demand)

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July 2nd, 2012 by Zachary Shahan 

 

So, if you haven’t seen the news, NREL released a report last week showing that we could power 80% the US with already commercially available clean, renewable energy technology by 2050. Now, before getting into the key findings from the report, I think it’s useful to put this into a bit of perspective and historical context.

Even more ambitious than the above, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi wrote in 2009 about how the whole world could be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2030. These guys aren’t wackos, either. Mark Z. Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program, and Mark A. Delucchi is a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. I have seen no indication that they were technically wrong.

Another very reputable body, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), noted this year that research it has conducted has found that clean, renewable energy could cheaply supply 48 states of the continental U.S. with 70% of its electricity demand by 2030 (and that’s without including hydroelectric).

So, we’re not exactly lacking in top researchers telling us that we can implement a ton more renewable energy than we have today. But one more study from a top research institute doesn’t hurt, and NREL is certainly a top renewable energy institute, one of the top institutes in the world for the subject. And this wasn’t just the product of a few researchers. It is actually the result of “110 contributors from 35 organizations including national laboratories, industry, universities, and non-governmental organizations.” It’s the most thorough report I’ve seen on the topic.

 

 

Basically, with these 110 researchers chiming in, there’s no reason anyone should say we can’t get a huge majority of our power from clean, renewable energy sources via currently available technology.

With that preface, let’s get to NREL’s key findings.

“Renewable Electricity Futures Study”

The name of the study is above, but it is actually broken into 4 volumes (all PDFs):

Visit these four volumes for a lot more detail. You could probably spend all week examining the study if you were interested.

For a quick snapshot, below is an overall summary of key findings, via NREL (emphasis added):

  • 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.

The cut in greenhouse gas emissions would be tremendous. And this is something that is critical to maintaining human society as we know it, or even improving it.

For much more on the technical issues and possibilities, check out any or all of the links above.

Notably, many technologies that we expect will soon be commercially viable weren’t even included in the identified renewable energy potential, because the study focused on commercially available technologies. This includes floating offshore wind turbines, enhanced geothermal, wave energy, tidal energy, ocean thermal energy conversion, and more. Add all of that in and I’m sure 100% renewable energy is more than viable.

Technology Isn’t the Only Thing

Now, as anyone in this industry should know, technology isn’t the main challenge these days. Having adequate support for a clean energy transition in top levels of political leadership is. This report may help to open the eyes of some. The increasing costs of climate-related disasters might do the same. But more than anything, I think we simply need the public to put pressure on politicians to make this possibility a reality.

The NREL study above focused on an 80% by 2050 scenario, but it looked at scenarios up to 90% penetration and down to 30% penetration. Unfortunately, without strong action, we could hit the very sad and societally disastrous 30% scenario.

Again, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the political will and the public demand.

The public has shown time and time again that it supports clean energy, but it hasn’t demanded it very much yet.

Until we do, we can be sure dirty energy companies will keep pumping everything they can into a political system that listens far too much to Big Money (when not forced to do otherwise).

I’d love to see this study help initiate true public demand for clean energy. Will you help that to happen? (Hint: share this news and be sure to bookmark this story for continual sharing with friends, family, acquaintances, and your political representatives!

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About the Author

spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as the director/chief editor. Otherwise, he's probably enthusiastically fulfilling his duties as the director/editor of Solar Love, EV Obsession, Planetsave, or Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and wind energy expert. If you would like him to speak at a related conference or event, connect with him via social media. You can connect with Zach on any popular social networking site you like. Links to all of his main social media profiles are on ZacharyShahan.com.



  • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

    I dug into the same report and came away with a different take. It confirms that only about 32 percent of our total energy has the “potential” to be renewable. I.e., renewables are going to need a lot of help from other low carbon energy sources.

    Note how small a role solar plays (around 13%). The lion’s share will be bird blending wind, river ecosystem destroying hydro, and land usurping biomass (note that the drought has caused the price of corn and corn ethanol to spike). The report is about electrical power, not total energy use.  A lot of hydro power will be silted in by the 2050 time frame.

    Read:

    The Exaggerated Promise of Renewable Energy

     

     

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      There’s no way you “dug into” this report if these are your general takeaways.

      You may have cherry-picked your way through it a bit, but with your conclusions preconceived and not matching the overall point of the report.

      • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

        Riiight …real useful comment.

        My article was 2400 words long, yours 800, so if I didn’t dig into it, you dug into it less. You uncritically parroted it, I critically analyzed it–highlighting the study results they chose not to highlight.

        All this hype reminds me of the biofuels love festival a few years back. Here we sit today with 40% of our corn crop usurped to provide 95% of our biofuels, and with a drought that is likely to send the price of both ethanol and food through the roof.

        • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Missing the forest for the trees is certainly your right.

          Not realizing that the researchers who created the report knew what was most worthy of highlighting is, too.

          To compare this to biofuels is ridiculous for numerous reasons, but it serves no purpose for me to spell that out, so i’m moving on to the next comment.

        • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

          And another real useful comment …

           “…Missing the forest for the trees is certainly your right…”

          As it is your right to uncritically parrot what is presented to you. Your point, if you had one, is lost on me.

          “…Not realizing that the researchers who created the report knew what was most worthy of highlighting is, too..”

          Riiight …

          “…To compare this to biofuels is ridiculous for numerous reasons, but it serves no purpose for me to spell that out…”

          Compare “this” (whatever this is) to biofuels? When the biofuel version of the present renewable energy media feeding frenzy
          kicked off you couldn’t find a critique of them in print or on the web. The critique eventually arrived, cooling the hype considerably. The same thing will eventually happen for wind and solar.

          Renewable energy has a lot of room to grow but it’s also important to understand the overall limits of renewable energy (in this case by using the report’s own findings) so we can
          start thinking about the other energy sources that will be needed to fill in the significant gaps.

          The public is getting the false impression that other low carbon energy sources won’t be needed.

          • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

            Sorry you don’t seem to get the first two points.

            I’ve seen plenty of critiques of wind and solar, most of which, when looked into, are complete bunk. The overall findings here are not limited by an overlooking of some big limitation.

            There’s no denying that there are limits to RE or any other technology. This report doesn’t deny them, and my summary doesn’t deny them. In fact, the gaps are filled in extensively here and elsewhere.

            I don’t think the public is getting any damaging false impression of RE at all. We are far from coming close to the potential of renewable energy. RE still gets far less support than is warranted by the externalities of its competitors. There are still numerous (negative) misconceptions about RE floating around. We are far off from reaching the point you are implying, imho.

          • Bob_Wallace


            When the biofuel version of the present renewable energy media feeding frenzy

            kicked off you couldn’t find a critique of them in print or on the web. The critique eventually arrived, cooling the hype considerably. The same thing will eventually happen for wind and solar.”
            Russ, this is just wrong.  As soon as people started talking about biofuel some people started talking about land/water/food supply issues and about removing organic matter from the soil if ag “wastes” were utilized.

            One of the first biofuel ideas was using restaurant grease to create biodiesel (which is happening).  Pretty much immediately someone pointed out that there was a significant problem of resource limitation.

            Wind and solar?  Perhaps you haven’t noticed but installation rates are accelerating.  “Hype” isn’t hype if it is reporting facts, wouldn’t you say?

        • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

           “…Sorry you don’t seem to get the first two points…”

          Sorry you don’t seem to get my explanation of those points.

          “…The overall findings here are not limited by an overlooking of some big limitation…”

          I don’t recall suggesting such a thing.

          “…I don’t think the public is getting any damaging false impression of RE at all. …”

           Is there a difference between a “damaging” false impression and a generic false impression? The citizens of Japan and Germany appear to be under the false impression that renewable energy can replace all fossil fuel use on its own.

          “…We are far from coming close to the potential of renewable energy…”

          I believe I said that as well.

          “…RE still gets far less support than is warranted by the externalities of its competitors…”

          I think you are saying that if fossil fuels had to pay for using the atmosphere as a giant open sewer and for dumping mountain tops into stream ecosystems, then renewable energy would be more competitive and I don’t disagree.

          “…There are still numerous (negative) misconceptions about RE floating around…”

          Again, I don’t disagree but I also don’t see your point.

          “…We are far off from reaching the point you are implying, imho…”

          If by that you mean we have a long way to go before having to decide what energy sources to use to fill in the gaps, then I also don’t disagree.

          However, that is no reason not to point out the overall limitations now. The emissions from Japan are much higher than they were before taking nuclear off line.

          “…I’ve seen plenty of critiques of wind and solar, most of which, when looked into, are complete bunk…”

          I wouldn’t disagree with that statement but I also don’t see its relevancy in this discussion..

          “…There’s no denying that there are limits to RE or any other technology. This report doesn’t deny them, and my summary doesn’t deny them…”

          I never claimed the report or your summary denied the limits.

        • http://www.biodiversivist.com Russ Finley

          “…Russ, this is just wrong …One of the first biofuel ideas was using restaurant grease to create biodiesel (which is happening). Pretty much immediately someone pointed out that there was a significant problem of resource limitation…”

          Waste grease is already tapped out. I was blogging for Grist Magazine at the time and was hard-pressed to find critique of it until finally,one day I found a piece in 2005 by George Monbiot called “Worse than Fossil Fuels.” He received hundreds if not thousands of hateful comments and even a few threats of violence for being the first to point out the emperor had no clothes on.
          The papers in Science and Nature about land use changes began appearing a year or two later.

          “…Wind and solar?  Perhaps you haven’t noticed but installation rates are accelerating. “ype” isn’t hype if it is reporting facts, wouldn’t you say? …”

          I’m glad to see more of it. What gave you
          impression that I’m not a fan of renewable energy? Many years ago there was a significant tax credit for putting solar hot water on your roof. A snapshot in time would have found an acceleration in solar installations. A decade later most of those installations had fallen into disrepair, including the one on the White House. The growth rate for renewables will vary with time, depending on things like government subsidies.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UJF2BTPOQMQ73DHKVQH7RZAU3Q matt

    Very disappointing that this article falls for the myth of “clean” hydropower. 
    Hydropower dams are to water quality, what coal fired power plants are to air quality.

  • Pingback: Just Energy Independence or Clean Energy Self-Reliance? - CleanTechnica

  • SidAbma

    Hi Zack
    A lot of people like to call natural gas a dirty fossil fuel, because it has been used all these past years inefficiently. Natural gas is a fuel that can be consumed to almost 100% energy efficiency.
    Every natural gas appliance has a chimney, and blowing up all these chimney’s is a lot of HOT WASTED Energy. A lot of waste! This is the way it has always been, but it didn’t have to be.
    The technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery is designed to recover most of the energy out of these waste exhaust gases, so that it can be utilized back in the building or facility where it was combusted, or “hosted” to be used by others, who could make use of this heat energy.
    Instead of hot exhaust COOL exhaust would be vented into the atmosphere. There will be days in the summer months where this exhaust will be cooler than the outside air temperature. Could you imagine if right now all of industry and the power plants in the 2/3 of the country that are consuming natural gas for power and to produce these products that we consume daily were applying this natural gas Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery technology, it could possibly be considered mass outdoor cooling.
    Fossil fuels create emissions.
    The US DOE states that for every million Btu’s of energy recovered from these waste exhaust gases, and this recovered energy is utilized back in the building or facility, 118 lbs of CO2 will NOT be put into the atmosphere. Doesn’t sound like much? You need lights?
    The DOE also states that if a 60 watt light bulb is left on for 24 hours it will generate 3.3 lbs of CO2. How many light bulbs have to be changed or turned off HOURLY to keep up with the CO2 reduction happening hourly in the boiler room?
    And then there is the WATER that is being “created” during this heat recovery process. Do not waste this water. It can be used as is, or treated and used for many more purposes.
    Have you ever seen combusted natural gas irrigate the lawns and flower beds?
    This is how efficiently natural gas can be utilized.
    We need our governments and industry to recognize this and apply it so that we are operating as efficiently and cleanly as possible until wind and solar and batteries and tidal and over time other methods become even more efficient than natural gas being used efficiently.
    Can you imaging these converted coal to natural gas power plants without these big chimney’s, being operated at 100 % energy efficiency. It is so possible.
    Check it out.

  • http://twitter.com/SaintlyAditya Saintly A

    The idea is very very great but unfortunately the most realistic scenario is we are going nuclear. I am a great fan of clean technica, clean technologies, clean energies, but I am advocating now for nuclear power for looking at reality, when crudes come to end, world economy will collapse, and all promises of clean energies are at percentages insignificant to the numbers sustained by petro energy sector. so the only option to keep world going is nuclear power. now there is a lesser of two evils choice. What happened to cold fusion? 

    • Bob_Wallace

      Nuclear is almost certainly not where we are going.

      It’s too expensive.  It’s too slow to install.  And nuclear brings a waste/danger combo that most of us do not want in our neighborhoods, or even our countries.

      To state that nuclear is the only option is 100% incorrect.  Absolutely, totally incorrect.  

      Absurdly incorrect.

      Cold fusion?  Maybe in another 20 years.  Or the 20 years after that….

      • Ross

        That would be more for hot fusion. At least we know that is physically possible in nature.

  • Edward Kerr

    Zach:

    Really good post. Some of us have long contended that the transition to clean energy is more than possible with the main problems being the lack of political will, resistance from vested interests and an apathetic populace.  The problems are NOT technical !!!

    It will happen in time, if we don’t kill ourselves. That’s why, for me. there is a real sense of urgency in speeding up the process. The long term result of clean energy will be the only acceptable situation and the short term benefit will be increased solid employment opportunities.

    If the general public just understood the ramifications………

    Ed

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Thanks! Yeah, as one who writes on the actual potential nearly every day, such numbers aren’t so surprising. But then i realize again how much disinformation is out there. Invaluable report.

      And yeah, this cartoon always comes to mind: http://planetsave.com/2011/01/19/global-warming-what-if-its-a-big-hoax/
      Of course, we seem pretty intent on killing off our species and over 50% of the other species on the planet instead. some sort of Earth cleansing or something…

  • AlanNogee

    This is a very important report. The huge multi-party collaboration and review– involving utility industry, as well as government, academic, NGO and renewable industry participation–and the very detailed modeling, makes this a much more ambitious and credible analysis than previous efforts.

    Alan Nogee
    Clean Energy Consultng
    Former Director, Clean Energy Program, Union of Concerned Scientists
    @alannogee

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      hey Alan, didn’t realize you used to be with UCS!

    • Ross

      Hours of fun reading material to be sure. I’m not joking.

  • Ross

    The graph at the top shows for the 90% RE scenario shows natural gas, cofire coal, coal and nuclear coming it at about 380GW and the total below 1,600GW.

    That’s a lot more than 10% going to the dirty/dangerous/legacy sources. What gives are they doing something dubious like classifying unproven CCS as RE?

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      you’re looking at capacity. check the generation chart — that’s got fossil fuels at 10%.

      • Ross

        Ah right thanks. I have to doubt if the US will really need that much legacy peaking capacity sitting around for the rare instances when renewables, storage, smart grid, distribution and interconnectors can’t match demand.

        • Bob_Wallace

          It’s going to be interesting to see what this current US heat wave does to renewable installation.

          Right now I would imagine that there are a lot of people without electricity who are thinking that some solar panels on their roof could let them run their AC during the day and keep their frozen food frozen.

          Next step is affordable storage and people with solar panels are going to start looking at producing almost all of their power.

          When the ads talk about using your EV as home power storage, I’m guessing some people are going to listen to that message a little more intently.

          My guess is that we can’t predict future peaking capacity demands based on historical demand.

          • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

            ditto.

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