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US Could Cut Electricity Production Emissions By 78% In 15 Years, Says NOAA

A new report has concluded that the United States could cut greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production by 78% within 15 years.

According to a new study conducted by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States could cut electricity-produced greenhouse gas emissions by 78% below 1990 levels within 15 years, while still meeting increased electricity demand across the country.

The new study, published online in the journal Nature Climate Change, is based on a sophisticated mathematical model that evaluated future cost, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios. Specifically, the model found that improvements in transmission infrastructure would allow weather-driven renewable energy resources such as wind and solar to supply most of the United States’ electricity demand at costs similar to today’s.


A high-resolution map based on NOAA weather data shows a snapshot of wind energy potential across the United States in 2012. (Credit: Image by Chris Clack/CIRES)

“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 of the study and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder.

According to MacDonald, the solution is to build up the country’s solar and wind capacity, in conjunction with a more robust transmission system, so that there is enough electricity being produced somewhere in the country to make up for those locations which might be encountering lower wind speeds or sunshine levels.


A high-resolution map based on NOAA solar irradiance data shows a snapshot of solar energy potential across the United States. (Credit: Image by Chris Clack/CIRES)

The model that the team worked from used high level meteorological data from NOAA, and “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.”

In fact, even if renewable energy costs exceeded those that experts are currently predicting, the worst the model managed to create was a CO2 emissions drop of 33% below 1990 levels by 2030, delivered at 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour — compared to 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

The paper can be accessed at Nature Climate Change here, and a more in-depth look at the study from NOAA’s researchers here.

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