Rapid, affordable energy transformation possible, study says

January 25, 2016, University of Colorado at Boulder
A high-resolution map based on NOAA weather data showing one measure of wind energy potential across the United States in 2012. Credit: Chris Clack/CIRES

The United States could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power production by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years while meeting increased demand, according to a new study by NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder researchers.

The study used a sophisticated mathematical model to evaluate future cost, demand, generation and transmission scenarios. It found that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, weather-driven renewable resources could supply most of the nation's electricity at costs similar to today's.

"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 and recently retired director of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder.

The paper is published online today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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

"In the future, they may not need to," 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.

Since the sun is shining or winds are blowing somewhere across the United States all of the time, MacDonald theorized that the key to resolving the dilemma of intermittent renewable generation might be to scale up the renewable energy generation system to match the scale of weather systems.

A high-resolution map based on NOAA solar irradiance data showing one measure of solar energy potential across the United States. Credit: Chris Clack/CIRE

So MacDonald, who has studied weather and worked to improve forecasts for more than 40 years, assembled a team of four other NOAA scientists to explore the idea. Using NOAA's high-resolution meteorological data, they built a model to evaluate the cost of integrating different sources of electricity into a national energy system. The model 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 of various energy mixes, including coal. It showed that low-cost and low-emissions are not mutually exclusive.

"The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied," Clack said. "And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today."

Even in a scenario where renewable energy costs more than experts predict, the model produced a system that cuts CO2 emissions 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

If renewable energy costs were lower and natural gas costs higher, as is expected in the future, the modeled system sliced CO2 emissions by 78 percent from 1990 levels and delivered electricity at 10 cents per kWh. The year 1990 is a standard scientific benchmark for greenhouse gas analysis.

A scenario that included coal yielded lower cost (8.5 cents per kWh), but the highest emissions.

At the recent Paris climate summit, the United States pledged to cut greenhouse emissions from all sectors up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The new paper suggests the United States could cut total CO2 emissions 31 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by making changes only within the electric sector, even though the electrical sector represents just 38 percent of the national CO2 budget. These changes would include rapidly expanding renewable energy generation and improving transmission infrastructure.

In identifying low-cost solutions, researchers enabled the model to build and pay for transmission infrastructure improvements—specifically a new, high-voltage direct-current transmission grid (HVDC) to supplement the current electrical grid. HVDC lines, which are in use around the world, reduce energy losses during long-distance transmission. The model did choose to use those lines extensively, and the study found that investing in efficient, long-distance transmission was key to keeping costs low.

MacDonald compared the idea of a HVDC grid with the interstate highway system which transformed the U.S. economy 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 new model is drawing interest from other experts in the field.

"This study pushes the envelope," said Stanford University's Mark Jacobson, who commented on the findings in an editorial he wrote for the journal 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."

Explore further: Greening the electric grid with gas turbines

More information: Alexander E. MacDonald et al. Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on US CO2 emissions, Nature Climate Change (2016). DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2921

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29 comments

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gkam
2.1 / 5 (11) Jan 25, 2016
"The new paper suggests the United States could cut total CO2 emissions 31 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by making changes only within the electric sector, even though the electrical sector represents just 38 percent of the national CO2 budget. These changes would include rapidly expanding renewable energy generation and improving transmission infrastructure."
----------------------------------------

We are doing it. And we can do it without nukes.
KBK
3.7 / 5 (9) Jan 25, 2016
Fixing the economy, fixing the environment, fixing the social structure, and any other 'fixing' has always been highly viable.

The problem is elite oligarchy in the political, military, police and financial systems.

Those are the stumbling blocks.

None of those groups or associations will work to fix the US or the planet, unless they remain as top dog.

They have shown, over centuries, that they are willing to sacrifice and malign anyone's life in the pursuit of power and in inter-relational wars they have among themselves... all at the expense of the population of the world and earth habitat.

Complete control, top dog, at any price.

If one does not come at the problem with an integral understanding of the push from elite hidden power groups, who commit to various forms of war at the drop of a hat to maintain power, then this situation will never be solved and most of us will be dead.

Your target, therefore... first and foremost, is hidden elite power structure.
david_king
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 25, 2016
Actually we could probably meet those goals in the western US almost entirely through energy conservation without doing one more wind or solar farm. It's all a matter of putting the incentives in the right place. Take the grid down for a couple of hours and see how folks scramble to figure out ways to charge their cell phones and power up their furnaces. Cut natural gas supplies for a week and see how many start piling in insulation and tightening up air gaps.
Lord_jag
5 / 5 (5) Jan 25, 2016
That sounds like the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

It really didn't change much. When the power came back on everyone resumed their carbon consuming lives.

Its becoming quite obvious that renewable is new cheaper and getting cheaper every year while non-renewables are more expensive every year. It's not about price, it's about controlling power.
jeffensley
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2016
The problem is elite oligarchy in the political, military, police and financial systems.


I disagree. The issue is inertia. It's simpler to work with what we already have than do a complete transition and we're humans, we like simple. Interesting study though. Once it's shown to be economically viable, it's only a matter of time. And it's easy to say "Yeah we'll just put HVDC lines across the country" but models don't account for public backlash when they discover one of these ugly things is coming across their property and the government wants to acquire it or have them lease it out for the "public good".
gkam
3 / 5 (6) Jan 25, 2016
"It really didn't change much. When the power came back on everyone resumed their carbon consuming lives."
--------------------------

True, but we had very few alternatives then, and even less knowledge of their advantages.
Eikka
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 25, 2016

We are doing it. And we can do it without nukes.


So who exactly is doing it? Who's building the new cross-continent HVDC grid? Who is this "we"?

Answer: nobody. Especially not you.

Besides, you also forgot that this system would be exactly the kind of "big energy" solution that you're always arguing against on the point of local energy independence. You're applying double standards.

Please do build it - don't just pretend and take credit for what "you" haven't actually done.
Eikka
3.5 / 5 (6) Jan 25, 2016
"Yeah we'll just put HVDC lines across the country" but models don't account for public backlash when they discover one of these ugly things is coming across their property


That's the practical problem. The theoretical cost is low - assuming you don't have to pay people to move their house out of the way. Of course you can confiscate property by the power of the state, but that'll be a political suicide.

That's the same reason why the North-South power corridor in Germany is a decade late and still under planning. It's NIMBY all the way down from Denmark to Austria. It's easy for politicians to promise yet more subsidies to the green power industry for votes, but when it comes to the actual infrastructure to make use of it, nobody wants to put their foot down because it makes a lot of people angry.

That's why evolution works better than revolution.
gkam
1.9 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2016
The world must look REALLY scary from under your bed.

Yes, WE, the folk in the energy business, where I used to work are doing it. I do my part with an electric vehicle and PV on the roof, being retired.

Do you operate a coal powerplant? Run your car on coal?

What?

BTW, this is a revolution only to those unaware of the decades of studies and work which has been going into it. It is only the initial actualization which is now apparent.
Eikka
4 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2016
There's a parallel to this study in the European DESERTEC project, where a HVDC supergrid would extend all the way from North Africa to Norway.

https://en.wikipe...Desertec

Problem is, almost all the shareholders in the project have bailed out. The problem is political: North Africa is too unstable for Europe to rely on.
Eikka
4 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2016
Yes, WE, the folk in the energy business, where I used to work are doing it


Oh please not that baloney again. You're a fake engineer with a fake consultancy who used to work as a travelling salesman for a power company. YOU have no part or parcel in what we're talking here.

I do my part with an electric vehicle and PV on the roof, being retired.


1) I don't believe you, 2) that's part of the problem, not the solution.

Those two things are WHY the supergrid is needed: because you make power at day without consuming it, and consume power at night without making it. You've also said you installed gas powered instant water heaters for your home, instead of storage boilers running on renewable electricity - again, being part of the problem and not the solution.
gkam
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2016
Gosh, Eikka, you get really nasty when you lose.

It matters not what you think I am or did or did not do, you are just another name in the internet. Mine is real.

You have piqued my interest, however, . . what would a traveling salesman for a power company do, exactly? Sell kWh in someone else' service territory? Secret wires?

The answer might reveal your concept of US power systems.
Eikka
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 25, 2016
BTW, this is a revolution only to those unaware of the decades of studies and work which has been going into it. It is only the initial actualization which is now apparent.


Until someone actually starts to erect pylons and pull cable, it's a revolution on paper only.

Talk is cheap. Publishing research paper is cheap. What actually matters is putting your money where your mouth is and actually DOING It.
bluehigh
1 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2016
Gas powered instant hot water.

Joie de vivre
gkam
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2016
I like your blinders, Eikka. Great efficacy. No, I put power into the grid during peak periods here, and take it out at night, when it is cheaper. The expensive and valuable stuff I produce at peak is traded kWh per kWh, with the cheap stuff I use at night, so I am a contributor to the system.

I am also a reason many of those transmission corridors might not be needed - providing much of our own stuff locally.
gkam
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2016
"Talk is cheap. Publishing research paper is cheap. What actually matters is putting your money where your mouth is and actually DOING It."
---------------------------

I told you I used to do it professionally, and now do it myself. I only have PV and an electric vehicle so far, but storage comes very soon.

And you have done, . . what?

You like coal, . . run your house and car on it?
Eikka
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 25, 2016
No, I put power into the grid during peak periods here


You're not a contributor, you leech on subsidies and get free power from the utility.

I've shown you before that the actual peak in your service area happens at late afternoon early evening for most of the year. You just keep ignoring the facts because it doesn't suit you.

You're living in la-la-land.
howhot2
4 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2016
Gas powered instant hot water.

Joie de vivre

Inductive heating powering instant hot water.

Insensate vin troglodyte!
gkam
2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2016
ffs, Eikka, get real.

"Free power from the utility'? I love it.

Tell me how that happens.

And California may seem like la-la land to the outsiders, but what we do will eventually be copied by you.

Pooua
1.5 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2016
The most unrealistic part of this report is the suggestion that we are going to have an adequate transmission system. The losses in efficiency alone kill the idea, but then there are problems with balancing the loads and keeping the system stable. Installing more efficient line, if it even existed, would cost more than all the power companies combined could afford over the next decade. This report looks like just an exercise in the use of unobtainium.
greenonions
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 25, 2016
Eikka
Until someone actually starts to erect pylons and pull cable, it's a revolution on paper only.
Fair bit of that going on already. You should come to Oklahoma and see the wind turbines. Texas is doing pretty well too - http://ecowatch.c...tricity/ Rome was not built in a day - but despite your protestations that what is happening - cannot possible happen - cuz you can do some calculations on a napkin - it actually is happening. The studies are a good step too - they beat your calculations on a napkin. Here is another study - http://www.techno...percent/ Imagine that - cheap - clean - renewable energy - must blow your mind.
Lord_jag
5 / 5 (4) Jan 26, 2016
No one in their right mind would dream of such a silly idea of HVDC transmission lines since Edison lost to Tesla in 1903. You will use the DC produced, run it through a high power pure sine wave inverter and directly produce 3 phase AC power. That can be dumped directly on the grid.

Consider the people at the substation. Before we install all these new systems they'll see a peak demand of power during the day. Afterwards, the same grid segment will simply see less demand. Less AC current will need to go to that grid segment to maintain their minimum required AC voltage.

So they can redirect that power somewhere else, decide not to fire up the peak power plant (usually diesel or natural gas) or decide not to open up all the hydroelectric generators.

No where does anyone want some HVDC transmission lines.
gkam
2 / 5 (8) Jan 26, 2016
We already have HVDC transmission lines.
Mr_Ed
3 / 5 (6) Jan 26, 2016
OK gkam, who has these imaginary HVDC transmission lines? Last one I remember was Vienna in the 60's.

And has anybody taken note of what Pooua wrote? North America is a big place and unless you have access to superconducting cables and some decent storage, the whole thing will be a bit messy and expensive.
Mr_Ed
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2016
Hmm, seems I'm a little bit dated here. China has one UHVDC system by Siemens since 2010.
greenonions
5 / 5 (6) Jan 26, 2016
geesh guys - this stuff is not hard to find. https://en.wikipe...projects

Depending on voltage level and construction details, HVDC transmission losses are quoted as about 3.5% per 1,000 km, which are 30 – 40% less than with AC lines
from https://en.wikipe...smission
Meaning you could send power from New York to LA - with about 30% line loss (not that you would ever want to do that).
gkam
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 27, 2016
Mr Ed, can you really be that dense as to think I would make that up? We had them for decades, you big silly.

http://ieeexplore...D4126469
Max5000
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2016
Unfortunately the problem with the US these days (as seen in Flint), that a lot is possible but it is never done. While the EU is building a massive interconnected smart grid and almost all EU nations are now connected and buying and selling (tranfering/sharing) electrische across advanced nation to nation grids, with lots of portions now using HVDC powerlines (especially underwater HVDC), the US has only "plans".

The same with offshore wind, where EU nations now have over a thousand large offshore windturbines the US still has Zero! offshore tubines.

The same with High Speed Rail plans where almost all big EU cities are now connected with High Speed Rail (even many Chinese cities), the US only has "plans" (Accela is not high speed with 77Mph on average, mainly because of many old rail sections and most of it too close to buildings). And the Californian line is now likely to fail as well because construction costs are 4 times as high as in Europe and 5 times as high as China.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2016
We have had HVDC long distance transmission lines for decades in now in the West. The main one augments the 500kV Intertie (AC), which connects Western states, a province of Canada and a state of Mexico.

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