The U.S. could cut emissions from its electricity grid in half within the next decade through investments in renewables and transmission, according to a research team backed by Bill Gates.
At a cost of $1.5 trillion, the U.S. could reach 70% carbon-free electricity and reduce its emissions by 42% by 2030. The new model comes from Breakthrough Energy Sciences (BES), a division of the Gates-founded organization that works to promote innovation that will help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.
The research focuses on four options for a beefed up power grid that would help connect the country’s abundant but far-flung renewable resources to the people that need them. All require a massive scale-up of wind and solar farms; the main difference is how the clean energy that’s generated is distributed along power lines. And, crucially, decarbonization of the grid will have to happen even as it has to be made more resilient to extreme weather events that will increase in frequency.
“Ultimately, we need to find ways to make the grid more robust to all of these kinds of challenges,” said Dhileep Sivam, vice president of BES. “This report is really a call to action to do that.”
Finding ways to better transfer electricity across the country is key to increasing the amount of renewable energy on the grid. For example, there may be strong winds at night in Texas just as people in Los Angeles are turning on their televisions in the evening. A sunny day in southern California could provide power on a windless day in the Midwest. It could also help avoid the problems that Texas faced during its recent cold blast, which affected plants that were solely reliant on coal, gas or wind for power generation.
BES proposes increases in both upgraded local alternating-current transmission lines, which are cheaper to link up short distances, and high voltage direct-current lines, which are cheaper to connect resources across states. The plans could be a helpful tool to realize President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to completely decarbonize the U.S. grid by 2035.
Currently, if all the states that set clean energy goals for 2030 meet them, those upgrades would cost about $360 billion with the result being a mere 6% decrease in U.S. emissions. That spend will mainly focus on deploying solar and wind, with less than 4% spent on increasing transmission. BES’s plans will see at least $200 billion spent on transmission, which would be more than 12% the total spend.
Improved transmissions across the U.S. could help integrate more renewables and increase the grid’s resiliency.
Breakthrough Energy Sciences
On top of the high costs, political hurdles loom large. Some of the designs proposed by the BES team show cables traversing hundreds of miles across the Western states. Even if the federal government puts up the funds to make some combination of the plans happen, they could be strangled by local regulatory processes.
That said, the proposals may prove to be the cheapest way for the U.S. to realize Biden’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s because it’s cheaper to put wind farms and solar parks in the places with the best resources and then transport the power than it is to prioritize putting them close to population centers to save on cable costs. The BES model includes existing hydro, nuclear and geothermal power in its carbon-free mix.
“There’s likely a viable path,” said Sanjeet Sanghera, an analyst at BloombergNEF. “It comes down to cost. That’s where the debate really is. What is the most reasonably cost grid?”
Improvements to the grid would also help the U.S. make up for its current deficiencies. In Europe and China, governments have invested much more in connecting the power-generating resources to far away populations.
Sivam accepts the BES’s modeling exercise has limitations. For instance, to keep the computational load of the model manageable, the current version does not take energy storage options such as batteries into consideration.
BES isn't the only group gaming out how to decarbonize the U.S. grid at the cheapest cost while also boosting its resilience. But Sivam says most other models are hidden behind expensive paywalls. BES is making its high-resolution model open source, allowing other researchers to play around with the analysis and question the assumptions the team has made.
The grid analysis is the science division’s first public report and it’s hoping to do more. There are plans to do a similar project on Europe’s grid, before moving on to other regions. And the team of 15 is looking even further ahead. Its researchers are already working with companies in Europe to study how to lower the cost of hydrogen made from renewable power — a key problem that needs to be solved to lower emissions in carbon-intensive industries like steel and shipping.
Written with William Mathis. You can read this newsletter on the web.
Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter on the intersection of climate science and emission-free tech. You can email him with feedback.
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