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July 1, 2009: Renewable Energy Could Contribute Significantly to U.S. Electricity Needs

July 1, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Renewable energy resources in the United States are sufficient to meet a significant portion of the nation’s electricity needs, according to a new report, Electricity From Renewables: Status, Prospects, and Impediments, from the National Research Council. Fully taking advantage of these potential low CO2-emitting sources for generating electricity will call for enhanced technologies, increased deployment, financial investments, and implementation of policies to drive increased adoption of renewable electricity, says the report. If the use of renewable electricity is to grow significantly, large increases will be required in the manufacture and installation of these technologies, which would offer employment and economic opportunities.

According to the report, hydroelectric power is the largest source of renewable electricity in the U.S., generating 7 percent of all U.S. electric power in 2007. Non-hydroelectric renewable resources - solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass - account for only 2.5 percent of U.S. electricity, although they have the potential to contribute far more, the report says. Nationally, solar and wind resources, in particular, could offer significant amounts of electrical power.

Technological advancements will continue to be needed to reduce costs and make renewable electricity technologies more efficient, the report says, but even with current technologies, renewable resources could contribute more than they do now. With accelerated deployment, increases in transmission capacity, and other electric-grid improvements, non-hydroelectric renewables could technically contribute up to 10 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020, and 20 percent or more by 2035. However, major scientific advances, and changes to the way we generate, transmit, and use electricity, will be needed before renewables can contribute the majority of U.S. electricity. Necessary improvements include the development of intelligent, two-way electric grids; large-scale and distributed electricity storage; and significantly enhanced, yet cost-effective, long-distance electricity transmission.

Renewable-energy use can have numerous environmental and local impacts. Many of these impacts are positive: Using renewable energy lessens emissions of CO2, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury; consumes less water; and causes less water contamination compared with fossil fuel electricity. However, issues of land use and other local impacts (e.g., noise from wind turbines or potential effects on local weather) will become increasingly important as deployment of renewable technologies grows, the report says.

For renewable electricity to make a significant contribution to U.S. electricity generation, it is critical that there is an understanding of the scale of deployment that will be required, says the report. Large increases will be needed over current levels of manufacturing, employment, investment, and installation. The U.S. Department of Energy recently stated that for wind energy to contribute 20 percent of U.S. electricity it would require 100,000 wind turbines, $100 billion of additional capital investments and transmission upgrades, and employees to fill 140,000 jobs. The result would be the elimination of more than 800 million metric tons of CO2 emissions from the U.S. electricity sector. According to the committee that wrote the report, the U.S. could feasibly meet this goal by 2030, but the challenge would be great.

Achieving widespread adoption of renewable energy will also require long-term and consistent policies that encourage the generation of renewable electricity, the report adds. In most cases, electricity from renewables is more expensive to produce than electricity from fossil fuels. In the near term, policy incentives, such as the renewable production tax credit, would boost the use of renewable electricity. Continued research and development into renewable electricity generation could lead to more cost-effective technologies. Overall, technological developments and consistent policy will need to be coordinated with manufacturing capacity and access to capital in order to accelerate deployment of renewable electricity.

To obtain a copy of the report, go to www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12619.

Publication date: 06/29/2009

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