NREL renewable electricity study holds good news for Canada

NREL renewable electricity study holds good news for Canada

Canada and the United States share a continent that is blessed with renewable energy potential in the form of sun and wind, biomass and geothermal, waves and rivers.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published its Renewable Electricity Futures (RE Futures) study last year to explore the potential for the U.S. to get 30 to 90 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050.

Led by NREL and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the study concluded that in combination with a more flexible electric system, renewables could supply 80 per cent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050, using technologies that are commercially available today, while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.

Great Resources, Plenty of Challenges

Like the United States, Canada has plenty of renewable resources, and will likely face challenges building a more flexible grid with new transmission, more responsive loads and greater storage capacity.

RE Futures, funded by U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is a collaboration of more than 110 contributors from 35 organizations, including national laboratories, industry, universities, and non-government organizations.

The study found that the cost to the United States of getting to 80 per cent renewables would be similar to other clean energy scenarios that involve greater reliance on non-renewable sources such as nuclear, or fossil fuel with carbon capture and sequestration.

The abundance of the resource means several different combinations of renewable technologies are possible to bring reliable electricity to Americans, while slashing greenhouse emissions and water use.

A Portfolio of Renewables

Indeed, under all the 80 per cent renewable scenarios, no single renewable source accounts for more than 33 percent of total annual generation in 2050. Onshore wind comprises 20 to 33 per cent, and six different technologies—photovoltaics(PV), concentrating solar power (CSP), offshore wind, geothermal, hydropower and biomass—each supply five to 15 per cent of the total. Although the study was not set up to predict the future mix of technologies, it demonstrated that the portfolio of renewable resources is diverse and abundant. Their future deployment will depend on technological, market, policy and institutional drivers.

Of course, there are hurdles to clear and assumptions built in regarding the cost and performance of renewable technologies. The scenarios are based on incremental and evolutionary technology improvement rates, and they don’t reflect DOE actions to further reduce the cost of renewable energy sources.

While adding higher loads of wind and solar to the electricity grid poses challenges due to their variable nature, large-scale deployment of renewables will not encounter any insurmountable long-term constraints related to materials, labour or manufacturing capacity.

A major challenge is to manage periods of low demand while trying to curtail excess electricity generation—the kind that is wasted. The answer is the more flexible system that would evolve from a broad portfolio of supply- and demand-side options. That system will likely require new operating procedures, technology advances, evolving business models and new market rules.

To deliver a greater load of renewables to various corners of the U.S., additional transmission lines will be needed. This transmission expansion would also enable reserve sharing over greater distances and smoother aggregated output profiles of variable technologies such as solar and wind. The system will still require adequate capacity from dispatchable resources, such as natural gas, biomass, geothermal, concentrating solar power, hydropower and storage.

Although the RE Futures study was restricted in scope to the continental United States, some of its conclusions may be applicable to Canada. Renewable technologies such as hydropower and geothermal are also more abundant in Canada than in the U.S., and could play a greater role in a 2050 electricity scenario.

The United States and Canada share a commitment to a more sustainable future. Seizing appropriate opportunities to work together on our power systems may help both country get to a cleaner, more efficient energy future.

Trieu Mai is a member of the Energy Forecasting and Modeling Group at NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center.

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