United States

New NREL study says 80% renewables by 2050 a reality

A new report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) plots the US’s electricity future, and shows that transforming the US electric system to a high renewable system from 2010 to 2050 is achievable. The study finds that renewable energy could vastly satisfy the nation’s electricity demands.
New NREL study says 80% renewables by 2050 a reality

A report published this month by the NREL entitled the Renewable Electricity Futures Study (RE Futures), is an initial investigation of the extent to which renewable energy supply can meet the electricity demands of the continental US over the next several decades.

The study explores the implications and challenges of very high renewable electricity generation levels – from 30% up to 90%, focusing on 80%, of all US electricity generation from renewable technologies in 2050.

While the authors of the study conclude that such high levels of renewable electricity generation are possible, “the unique characteristics of some renewable resources, specifically geographical distribution and variability and uncertainty in output, pose challenges to the operability of the nation's electric system”.

RE Futures provides initial answers to important questions about the integration of high penetrations of renewable electricity technologies from a national perspective, focusing on key technical implications. The study explores electricity grid integration using models with unprecedented geographic and time resolution for the contiguous United States to assess whether the US power system can supply electricity to meet customer demand on an hourly basis with high levels of renewable electricity, including variable wind and solar generation.

Key findings

  • 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 US 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 US 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.

RE Futures, funded by the US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is a collaboration with more than 110 contributors from 35 organizations including national laboratories, industry, universities, and non-governmental organizations.

As the most comprehensive analysis of high-penetration renewable electricity of the continental United States to date, the study can inform broader discussion of the evolution of the electric system and electricity markets towards clean systems. RE Futures results indicate that renewable generation could play a more significant role in the US electricity system than previously thought and that further work is warranted to investigate this clean generation pathway.

Another output of the study is a series of dynamic visualisations of how renewable and conventional energy capacities could ramp up between now and 2050 as shown in the inset.

[Inset: Visualisation of transformation of the Electric Sector showing installed capacity in 2050]

For additional information:

Renewable Electricity Futures Report

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