While the dangers of a power system based on the burning of fossil fuels are increasingly apparent, a new report on Monday argues that a rapid, affordable energy transformation is, in fact, within our grasp.
Within 15 years, the United States could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power production by nearly 80 percent below 1990 levels without increasing cost and, at the same time, meeting increased demand, according to researchers with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Not only do wind and solar compete under existing circumstances but the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, also tackled the problem of intermittent energy generation that comes with weather-driven renewable resources.
Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, theorized that the key to resolving this dilemma might be to "scale up the renewable energy generation system to match the scale of weather systems."
The researchers employed NOAA's high-resolution meteorological data to build a model that would evaluate the cost of integrating different sources of electricity into a national energy system. The model, NOAA explained, "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 allowed researchers to evaluate the affordability, reliability, and greenhouse gas emissions of various energy mixes, including coal."
"The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied," explained Christopher Clack, a physicist and mathematician with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-lead author of the report. "And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today."
In a scenario where renewable energy costs were lower and natural gas costs higher—such as is anticipated for the future—the model cut overall carbon emissions by 78 percent from 1990 levels and delivered electricity at 10 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Even in a case where renewable sources cost more than experts currently predict, the model cut emissions 33 percent by 2030 and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kWh.
What's more, the findings emphasized how beneficial key infrastructure upgrades to the existing power grid would be, both in terms of cost and emissions.
In fact, researchers found that when given the choice between using a theoretical new power grid that employed high-voltage direct-current transmission (HVDC) lines—which reduce energy loss during long-distance transmission—and the current, regionally-divided system, the model used the new power lines "extensively," even after the cost of updating the grid system was taken into account.
That finding underscored the point that "investing in efficient, long-distance transmission was key to keeping costs low."
In a press statement, MacDonald compared the idea of a HVDC grid with the establishment of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
"With an ‘interstate for electrons’, renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet," he said. "An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be."
The report comes just months after U.S. delegates signed on to an international climate deal to cut carbon emissions and work towards keeping global warming beneath 1.5°C. Campaigners have consistently said that this goal cannot be reached without aggressively cutting back on fossil fuel extraction and burning.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace released a report outlining how the world could completely shift to a system based on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.