Environment Montana Research & Policy Center
It is time for America to move beyond fossil fuels. Coal, oil and gas are responsible for a rapidly warming planet, for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year from air pollution, and for untold environmental damage. A shift to emission-free energy from the wind, sun and other renewable sources can solve many of America’s most pressing environmental and public health challenges.
America has the power to build an energy system in which our energy comes from clean, renewable sources like the wind and sun. There are many potential paths America can take to build on our abundant clean energy potential and help America rapidly achieve a renewable energy system.
Policymakers at the local, state and federal level should make concrete commitments to move toward 100% clean and renewable energy by 2050 at the latest. By doing so, they will be building on the example set by seven states and more than 170 cities around the United States that have committed to clean electricity or clean energy.
Renewable energy has tremendous promise as a tool to fight climate change, clean our air, and safeguard our environment.
- Pollution from burning fossil fuels is estimated to be responsible for more than one in 10 deaths in the United States each year – more than 350,000 total deaths in 2018.
- Oil, coal and gas are responsible for 80%of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels harm the climate when we burn them for energy and as a result of methane leaks that occur during mining, distribution and other parts of the fossil fuel life cycle.
- Research shows that, even considering the life-cycle impacts of manufacturing and installing solar panels and wind turbines, a rapid transition to emission-free renewable energy would create a vastly cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable nation.
America has abundant renewable energy resources capable of powering the nation. Data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows that America has access to enough sun and wind to power the nation many times over.
- America’s solar energy resources – counting just utility-scale and rooftop PV – have the technical potential to produce 284 million GWh of electricity each year, equivalent to 78 times U.S. electricity use in 2020. And America’s wind power resources, both onshore and offshore, have the technical potential to produce 40 million GWh of electricity each year, equivalent to 11 times U.S. electricity use in 2020.
- Every single state has either the wind or solar technical potential to power that state’s current electricity use at least once over. Eighteen states have the solar resources to power current electricity needs 100 times over, and five states have the wind resources to do so.
- Every single state other than Connecticut has either enough wind or solar technical potential to provide all of its electricity needs under a 2050 scenario in which transportation, buildings and other applications have largely been made to run on electricity.
Figure ES-1. America’s enormous wind and solar energy resources
Renewable energy can power our society 24/7/365. Research from academic and government sources has described many viable pathways by which America can meet our energy needs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year while relying mostly or entirely on renewable energy. While researchers have disagreements on the best or most economical way to build a renewable energy system, there is broad agreement that an energy system largely powered by renewable sources is feasible.
- A 2019 article from the journal Energy reviewed 181 studies from around the world assessing the concept of 100% renewable electricity or total energy systems. The article concluded that “[t]he majority of the reviewed studies find that 100% [renewable energy] is possible from a technical perspective, while only few publications argue against this.”
- Researchers have largely concluded that the technology we need for a renewable future is already available. As one study from Nature Communications put it, “currently available generation and storage technologies are sufficient for nearly 100% power system operation.” And from another study from Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews: “The technologies required for renewable scenarios are not just tried-and-tested, but also proven at a large scale.”
- NREL has used sophisticated modeling to simulate electric grids running on high levels of renewable energy. In its most recent study, focused on Los Angeles, NREL concluded that “[r]eliable, 100% renewable electricity is achievable — and, if coupled with electrification of other sectors, provides significant greenhouse gas, air quality, and public health benefits.”
- Researchers have identified key strategies that can help the U.S. achieve a largely renewable energy system in the shortest time and at the lowest cost. Such strategies include investing in transmission infrastructure to send solar or wind energy across the country to where it is needed, and building sufficient wind and solar power capacity to reduce the amount of storage needed for periods of lower power output.
Figure ES-2. Solar panels and wind turbines are getting more efficient and powerful
The keys to a 100% renewable future are within reach. The nation has ample potential to move forward rapidly in four key areas essential to a renewable energy future: building out renewable energy; modernizing the grid; reducing and managing energy use; and repowering our economy to take full advantage of clean energy.
1. Rapidly deploy clean energy. Over the last 20 years, the amount of electricity produced by wind and solar power in the U.S. grew more than 60-fold, accounting for 12% of all the electricity produced in America in 2020. Technology and price trends point the way toward far faster progress in the years to come.
- Today’s wind turbines and solar panels produce more energy, in less space, for less cost, and with more flexibility than ever before. The cost of wind power fell by 71% and utility-scale solar by 90% from 2009 to 2020. In 2019, the median new residential solar panel was 37% more efficient than one installed in 2010. And in 2019, the average installed wind turbine had 42% greater power capacity than one installed in 2010.
- New renewable energy technologies that could one day help provide more stable and diverse options for providing renewable energy are on the way. Floating offshore wind turbines, which are dropping in price and have been successfully deployed in pilot projects, can be located in deep waters and provide access to wind resources off the West Coast of the U.S. And advances in enhanced geothermal technology may soon allow more regions of the U.S. to tap into the nation’s enormous potential for generating electricity using underground heat.
2. Modernize the grid. The U.S. has laid the groundwork for providing reliable renewable power when we need it with a modern grid capable of storing energy, delivering energy across long distances, and reacting to changes in weather conditions.
- Battery storage capacity has skyrocketed as the cost per watt-hour of utility-scale battery storage has fallen dramatically, down 70% from 2015 to 2018. Batteries are now often deployed alongside new wind and solar farms both for their ability to store energy for when energy output is low and to assist grid function by helping regulate grid frequency and respond to grid disturbances. Long-term or seasonal energy storage solutions, like renewably-produced hydrogen, are being developed that could one day help the grid achieve renewable energy penetrations approaching 100%.
- Expanding transmission connections allows for more efficient and flexible use of renewable resources, such as in Texas where new transmission lines helped unlock enormous wind resources in rural parts of the state. Improving technology and falling costs for high-voltage direct current lines could soon allow the creation of important new transmission connections, including between the eastern and western U.S. grid systems.
- New technologies and tools are ready to help build a smarter, more modern grid. Smart inverters, along with strategies like extracting stored kinetic energy from wind turbines, are already allowing clean energy technologies to respond to changes in grid conditions. And sophisticated computing tools are making possible advanced forecasting that can provide grid operators with precise and granular information about renewable generation.
3. Reduce and manage energy demand. The U.S. has enormous potential to cut energy use and make energy demand more flexible, which would reduce the amount of new infrastructure needed for a shift to renewable energy.
- Energy efficiency can cut U.S. energy use in half by 2050, according to research from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The U.S. can achieve large energy reductions through advanced new strategies like geotargeted efficiency programs and energy management and information systems, as well as expanding access to older tried-and-true methods. For example, more than nine in 10 homes in the United States had not had an energy audit as of 2015.
- Demand response programs can reduce peak energy demand and enable the grid to respond to changes in renewable energy supply. Research from 2019 found that by 2030 demand response could provide 200 GW of “economically feasible load potential,” equivalent to 20% of peak load levels.
- In 2018, utilities reported a total enrolled demand response capacity of 20.8 GW, equivalent to the power capacity of about 10,000 wind turbines. Now, new technologies like smart thermostats and advanced metering infrastructure are enabling advanced demand response programs that can help create a more flexible and responsive electric grid.
4. Repower everything with renewables. Technology is available to repower most direct uses of petroleum or gas with electricity, and to tap the nation’s enormous potential for renewable heat and light.
- Electric vehicles (EVs) and buildings are far more efficient than fossil fuel technologies. A fully electrified and renewable energy system could cut primary energy consumption by at least half.
- Proven technologies are readily available for electrifying light-duty vehicles, residential buildings and commercial buildings, which account for 45% of fossil fuel end-use combustion in the U.S. EV technology in particular has dramatically improved in the last decade: The cost per watt-hour for EV batteries fell by 89% from 2010 to 2020, while the median driving range of EVs quadrupled.
- New technologies could soon allow us to power more activities with clean energy. Advanced battery technology is becoming available for powering medium- and heavy-duty freight, and a recent Deloitte study found that, among surveyed manufacturers, companies aimed to electrify nearly 45% of their processes by 2035.
- The U.S. can also tap into large amounts of renewable energy in the form of heat. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the U.S. has the economic potential for more than 17,500 geothermal district heating installations nationwide, with much of the potential located near major population centers including in the Northeast.
The stage is set for a rapid transition to renewable energy. But time is of the essence. Policymakers must do all they can to accelerate a shift away from fossil fuels to an energy system in which the vast majority of our energy comes from renewable sources like the wind and sun. Policymakers at every level of government should set ambitious goals to transition both electricity and other energy uses to clean, renewable sources. And they should ensure those goals are achieved through policies that provide clean energy with the financial and regulatory support that it needs.
Figure ES-3. The rapid fall of clean energy prices