Clean power could supply most U.S. electricity by 2030

By Maura Forrest

January 28, 2016

Renewable power could supply most of the U.S. electricity demand by 2030 without raising electricity prices, according to a new report.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector could be cut by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. The key, according to the research, is to integrate regional electricity grids across the U.S. to create a national grid.

Essentially, the idea is that somewhere in the country, the wind will be blowing and the sun will be shining at any given time.

Regional grids have helped stymie wind and solar power projects, because each region can experience long stretches without much sun or wind. The most obvious way to get around that is to rely on energy storage, except that large-scale storage often isn’t economically viable.

But by connecting regional grids with high-voltage, direct-current transmission lines, renewable power could be moved easily between regions.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder used a computer model to simulate different integrated grids with weather data from across the country.

They found that a network with 32 nodes connecting different regions would allow for enough wind and solar development to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.

But building such a network is easier said than done, according to Susan Tierney, a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy.

“The problem is not rooted in technology, but rather in the way that the U.S. power system is organized legally, politically, economically, and culturally,” she told Science magazine.

The same is likely true in Canada. Experts have long recommended integrating Canadian electricity grids to promote the development of renewable energy.

In recent months, it’s been suggested that B.C. and Alberta should connect their grids to allow surplus hydro power from B.C.’s Site C dam to move east and help Alberta phase out its coal-fired plants.

But in a recent opinion piece for the Vancouver Sun, Simon Fraser University professors Marvin Shaffer and John Richards argued that the provinces have traditionally been reluctant to look beyond their borders when it comes to electricity.

“It is ironic that leaders recognize the benefits that can be realized from greater international cooperation and trade, but have trouble seizing the more immediate and obvious advantages of inter-provincial planning and trade,” they wrote.



Photo Credit: Patrick Finnegan