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

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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.

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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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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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