One of the greatest objections made against the use of renewable energy for electricity supply, that only coal, gas or nuclear power can sustain a modern economy’s baseload power generation demand, has come under scrutiny in a new report by America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
In fact, the NREL’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study finds, renewable technologies available today – finds that technologies already commercially available today could, if deployed right, supply 80 per cent of America’s needs by 2050, “while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country”.
Although the main focus of the renewable debate is on wind and photovoltaic, the report notes that other commercial technologies will be required, including geothermal, biomass, wave power, and hydro. Wind and photovoltaic still figure most prominently in the study, with models putting their input at 50 per cent of national demand.
Nor are the economics prohibitive. The report modeled a range of renewable targets, from 30 per cent to 90 per cent, and found that in the 80 per cent renewable model, the cost of renewable generation is “comparable to published cost estimates of other clean energy sources”.
“Improvement in the cost and performance of renewable technologies is the most impactful lever for reducing this incremental cost,” the report states.
The key challenge, the report finds, is in re-engineering the electricity grid to cope with the geographical distribution, variability and uncertainty in output from individual renewable power plants. In this, the NREL study agrees with recent work from Australia's science agency CSIRO looking at how national grids need to change to accommodate high-penetration renewable energy. ®