United States Could Mostly be Powered by Sun and Wind by 2030

First Posted: Jan 27, 2016 09:23 AM EST

The United States could make huge leaps toward sustainable energy in the near future. Scientists have found that it's possible for the U.S. to be mostly sun and wind power by 2030.

Although improvements in wind and solar generation have continued to ratchet down the cost of producing renewable energy, these energy resources are inherently intermittent. As a result, utilities have invested in surplus generation capacity in order to back up renewable energy generation with natural gas-fire generators and other reserves.

Since the sun is shining or the winds are blowing somewhere across the United States at all times, researchers theorized that the key to resolving the dilemma of intermittent renewable energy generation may be to scale up the renewable energy generation system.

In this latest study, the scientists used NOAA's high-resolution meteorological data to build a model to evaluate the cost of integrating different sources of electricity into a national energy system. The model estimated 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 relentless seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied," said Christopher Clack, one of the researchers, in a news release. "And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today."

In fact, the model produced a system that cuts CO2 emissions by 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. It also delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt per hour. In comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

"The study pushes the envelope," said Mark Jacobson, who commented on the findings in an editorial he wrote for Nature Climate Change. "It shows that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil-fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost than a fossil fuel-based grid-even before storage is considered."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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