How to meet the grid decarbonization challenge

A transmission tower holds electric power lines.

By Jonathan Marshall, CCL Economics Research Coordinator

Eliminating climate pollution across every sector of the economy in the next quarter of a century, after two centuries of dependence on fossil fuels, may be the greatest challenge we have ever faced, but it’s also an opportunity to show what humanity can accomplish together in the face of an unprecedented global threat.

The drive toward net-zero emissions by 2050 must start by rapidly decarbonizing electricity while shifting more and more of our energy use for buildings, transportation, and industry onto the electric grid and away from oil, gas, and coal. We have a long way to go. As of 2021, renewables and nuclear power made up only 20% of all U.S. energy sources.

How Demand for Clean Electricity Will Soar to 2050

Source: RMI

Renewables are the bedrock – but aren’t enough

As the lowest cost source of new generation available today, wind and solar will likely be the growing foundation of any clean electric system for many decades to come. Nevertheless, they create vexing issues for utility and grid planners who labor to deliver reliable electric service at times when nature doesn’t provide adequate wind or sun to meet demand. 

A University of California study analyzed hourly U.S. weather data over seven years and found that during the worst single hour, total wind and solar generation would have fallen 80% below their average output (see chart below).  Smaller but still significant shortfalls would have lasted days or even weeks. 

Source: 2035 Report

Such gaps in supply are more than an inconvenience. When electricity isn’t available to meet demand, the entire grid can collapse, leading to prolonged and costly regional blackouts. The challenge of managing the transition to a renewables-rich grid is multiplied by the prospect of soaring demand for clean power as more and more buildings and vehicles go electric. 

Complementary solutions

Given their inherent variability, investing only in more wind and solar capacity to meet demand would send system costs soaring and provoke more disputes over the vast land area needed to site them. Fortunately, other solutions are available to complement renewable energy, promoting reliable and affordable clean electricity. To help CCL volunteers understand how we can solve these grid decarbonization challenges, the Research Team has developed training pages on wind and solar energy and these complementary solutions:

These solutions work best as a diversified mix

When I read about the trillions of dollars of new investment and thousands of gigawatts of new generation capacity required to decarbonize the grid, I’m reminded of the daunting challenges ahead. Then I’m encouraged by remembering that for every problem there are multiple complementary solutions—and if implemented, they will almost certainly lower the cost of electricity over time even as they help mitigate our climate crisis. 

The best mix of energy sources and technologies, of course, will depend on their future costs and capabilities, and will vary region to region based on the resources available. 

This is why CCL focuses on technology-neutral policies, like carbon fee and dividend or clean energy permitting reform, which allow consideration of diverse options that will reduce emissions while supporting reliability and affordability. 

 

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