Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of energy produced in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels, such as gas, coal and petroleum, there are significant efforts underway to reverse this trend. Currently, wind and solar power, only account for little more than 2 percent of the total U.S. energy consumption, according to the Institute for Energy Research, with the former providing 1.8 percent and the latter roughly 0.4 percent. However, with the government setting new standards for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and scientists forecasting ways to reduce the costs associated with using renewable energy sources, there's a strong probability that sun and wind power will be used to generate the majority of electricity in the U.S. by 2030.
Government sets new targets
In an effort to reduce the U.S. reliance on fossil fuels while also cutting the greenhouse gas emissions negatively affecting the environment, both public and private sectors are hard at work creating policy proposals, scientific models and innovative new technology to meet energy demand and lower the cost of electricity. In particular, the U.S. government is pushing for more stringent reduction of CO2 emissions, which should further fuel a switch from burning fossil fuels to more renewable energy sources.
Fossil fuel-fired power plants produce 31 percent of U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions, the largest source of CO2 emissions in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After pledging to cuts its national emissions by up to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 during the recent United Nations climate change conference in Paris, the U.S. will need to find ways to lower the cost of renewable energy to make it a more mainstream option.
"Scientists are devising solutions to the problems obstructing nationwide implementation of renewable energy sources."
To reach this goal, the EPA has established the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut pollution levels from the power sector. By establishing both interim and final CO2 emissions rates for fossil-fuel electric steam generating units and natural gas-fired combined cycle units, the EPA plans to reach this target. While the proposal also allows for emissions trading designed to offset pollution and help states reach the future standards, the main thrust of the program is to get CO2 levels reduced.
Despite these goals, there are some obstacles standing in the way. Thankfully, scientists and researchers are devising solutions to the problems obstructing nationwide implementation of renewable energy sources.
Scientists make bold predictions
Some people might be skeptical about how the country plans on reducing these levels. One of the lingering myths surrounding renewable energy is that it is too costly to fully power the nation's energy grid. In addition, the U.S. power grid is divided into several, smaller regional grids, which also contain smaller subdivisions. Since the sun is not always shining in a given location nor is wind always blowing, it means there are places that simply cannot rely solely on these sources due to the division of the grid system. This intermittent nature of renewable energies has made storage capacity crucial. Unfortunately, many utility companies use natural gas-fired generators and other fossil-fuel powered reserves to back up renewable energy generation.
However, a recent scientific study demonstrated how electricity powered by sun and wind sources can be cost-effective and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Science Daily reported on the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The article "Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on US CO2 emissions," authored by NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder researchers, attempted to discern whether it was possible to create a larger grid of affordable renewable energy.
Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and recently retired director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, has spent the past 40 years studying weather to improve forecasting. He took his four decades of experience and used it to test his hypothesis for how the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gases while simultaneously meeting increased demand.
Working with a team of researchers and scientists, the study created a complex mathematical model that estimated and evaluated the costs associated with integrating different electricity sources into a national energy grid. By analyzing the affordability, reliability and greenhouse gas emissions of a variety of energy mixtures, the study found that low costs and low emissions are not mutually exclusive.
"The study found that low costs and low emissions are not mutually exclusive."
"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," MacDonald said.
The study claims that by replacing the current grid with a high-voltage direct current transmission grid, this would be capable of immediately transporting energy from where it was available to where it was needed. McDonald likened this national energy grid to the construction of the interstate highway system.
"With an 'interstate for electrons', renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet," said McDonald. "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."
Using a national grid system as a template, the model also forecast a reduction of CO2 emissions by 33 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, with a cost of 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to the 2012 cost of 9.4 cents per kWh.
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