Renewable Energy Can Provide 80 Percent of U.S. Electricity by 2050

A comprehensive study by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows that the U.S. can generate most of its electricity from renewable energy by 2050.

The Renewable Electricity Futures Study found that an 80 percent renewables future is feasible with currently available technologies, including wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, biopower, geothermal, and hydropower.

The study also demonstrates that a high renewables scenario can meet electricity demand across the country every hour of every day, year-round.

Variable resources such as wind and solar power can provide up to about half of U.S. electricity, with the remaining 30 percent from other renewable sources.

Increasing renewables to supply 80 percent of U.S. electricity does not, however, limit energy choices to one specific pathway. Rather, the NREL study shows that a range of renewable energy scenarios provide the nation with multiple pathways to reach this goal.

Ramping up renewable energy provides significant benefits…

Renewable energy provides substantial benefits for our climate, our health, and our economy. It dramatically reduces global warming emissions, improves public health, and provides jobs and other economic benefits. And since most renewables don’t require water for cooling, they dramatically reduce the water requirements for power production compared to fossil-fueled power plants.

In an 80 percent renewables future, carbon emissions from the power sector would be reduced by 80 percent, and water use would be reduced by 50 percent.

…but we need the right policies to make it happen

The NREL study makes it clear that the 80 percent renewables future is technically feasible and affordable, but can only be achieved with the right policies and measures in place.

We already have the tools to start significantly ramping up renewable energy today. But we must also work to improve the electricity grid with increased transmission infrastructure to integrate a high amount of renewable generation, and incorporate more advanced grid planning to maintain reliability.

Ultimately, the U.S. needs a long-term clean energy policy that create a long-term market for renewable energy, encourages and supports the integration of renewable energy, puts a price on carbon emissions, and increases funding for research and development.

More about the Renewable Electricity Futures Study

The Renewable Electricity Futures Study is arguably the most comprehensive analysis of a high renewable electricity future to date.

The study was assessed by 140 peer reviewers, used state-of-the-art modeling to achieve the results, and includes detailed assessments of costs, challenges, and opportunities for each renewable energy technology. It serves as an accurate, realistic portrayal of what can be achieved in the coming decades.

Since the study was performed at a very fine geographic and time scale (looking at 134 regions across the U.S. on an hourly basis) the results are robust and closely detail how renewable energy sources and potential vary by region.

Some parts of the country have substantial wind resources. Other areas have more solar potential. Still others have extensive biomass or geothermal resources. To show these variations across the country, NREL created interactive visualizations that show differences for several metrics, including: 

NREL's interactive visuals show how the electricity grid changes over time.

Photos: NREL

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