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In-Depth, 3-Year NREL Analysis: Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study

Unprecedented in scale and the first of its kind — the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study (LA100) provides insights into how the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) can meet its clean energy targets established in 2016 and 2017. LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the country, currently generates more than half of its electricity from renewable and zero-carbon resources.

Meeting Los Angeles’ ambitious goal of reliable, 100% renewable electricity by 2045 — or even 2035 — is achievable with rapid deployment of wind, solar, storage, and other renewable energy technologies this decade, according to a years-long analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The combined effects of energy efficiency, electrification, and demand response yield large benefits to greenhouse gas reductions and public health and help cost-effectively manage the clean energy transition.

In addition to identifying pathways for Los Angeles, the study illuminates the potential for other municipalities, large and small, to embark on similar analysis and contribute toward national efforts to decarbonize the U.S. power sector by 2035.

Unprecedented in scale and the first of its kind, the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study (LA100) provides insights into how the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), a vertically integrated utility that owns its generation, transmission, and distribution system, can meet clean energy targets established by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council in 2016 and 2017. LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the country, currently generates more than half of its electricity from renewable and zero-carbon resources.

The LA100 analysis stops short of making specific policy or project recommendations but identifies no-regrets investments the city can consider now to reap potential benefits to reliability and greenhouse gas reductions in the coming decade: namely, deployment of new solar, wind, batteries, and transmission within and outside of the city — paired with upgrades to the local distribution system and smart-grid operational practices that make more efficient use of these investments.

Unlike other forward-looking studies of high-renewable power systems, LA100 uniquely considered reliability as a fundamental requirement for the future grid.

“Reliability of the grid is paramount — especially in a future when more consumer products like cars are electrified. Our models subjected the grid to multiple stresses — from higher temperatures due to climate change, to wildfire risks that could take out transmission lines for weeks or even months at time,” said Jaquelin Cochran, manager of NREL’s grid systems analysis group and principal investigator of the LA100 study.

Quarterly meetings over three years with the study’s LA-based Advisory Group, comprising members representing neighborhoods, customers, labor, business, environmental, academic organizations, and institutions, tailored the research to constituents’ needs and concerns — pioneering a new, more holistic approach to energy analysis that centers the community in the conversation.

“LA100 is community driven — designed to address community questions about what a clean energy transition might look like, what that means for health and jobs, and how the benefits can be widely shared,” Cochran said.

The analysis showed multiple paths exist for the city to reach its goal. Each scenario follows a similar trajectory up to 80%–90% renewable generation. Wind and solar resources — enabled by storage — provide the majority of energy required to meet future load: 73%–92% depending on the scenario.

Where the pathways diverge is in how to cost-effectively and reliably meet the remaining energy demand that cannot be easily served by wind, solar, and batteries. For the last 10% (going from 90% renewable electricity to 100%), all scenarios rely on some type of renewably fueled combustion turbine built inside the city that can come online within minutes and run for several days when needed. Such technology is still used infrequently, like peaking plants today. Because there are few commercially available, near-term options for this type of grid service, meeting the challenge of the final stretch toward 100% highlights future research directions at the local scale and beyond — such as developing the infrastructure required to produce and store hydrogen, or multi-day demand response programs that could provide a lower-cost alternative.

Importantly, LA100 establishes a methodology that could inform other municipalities similarly interested in a clean, equitable, and reliable energy future.

Along with expertise from partners at the University of Southern California, Colorado State University, and Kearns & West, the study relied on NREL’s objective, holistic capabilities to analyze potential pathways the community can take to achieve Los Angeles’ goal. There is no single model that can perform a study of this scope, so the analysis combined dozens of them — spanning detailed electricity demand modeling, power system investments and operations, distribution grid modeling, economic impact analysis, and life cycle greenhouse gas analysis, among others. Using NREL’s supercomputer, experts ran more than 100 million ultrahigh-resolution simulations to evaluate a range of future scenarios for how LADWP’s power system could evolve while maintaining its current high degree of reliability.

The study found that decarbonizing the power sector through renewable deployment helps create the enabling conditions for electrifying the buildings and transportation sectors. Together, these changes yield large reductions in carbon emissions and air pollutants, which lead to health and other benefits for disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged communities alike, compared with today. However, ensuring prioritization of environmental justice — per the Los Angeles City Council motivations driving the study — would require intentionally designed decision-making processes and policies/programs that prioritize disadvantaged communities.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Energy Department by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.

Article courtesy of the NREL,  the U.S. Department of Energy.

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