A study by Stanford scholar Mark Z. Jacobson and a team of researchers at both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkley in 2015 created a road map for a 100% renewable future. Ambitious? Sure. Unlikely? Perhaps.
Skeptics shot it down, optimists pointed to it for inspiration. Since 2015, it’s been basically debunked. (It made deep assumptions about the hydroelectric availability that’s even technically achievable in the U.S.) But this study brought a 100% renewable future to the forefront, and it made a point to say that it wasn’t just possible, it was affordable.
According to the study’s analysis, 80% to 85% of our energy demand can be supplied from wind, water, and solar by as early as 2030. The remaining 15% to 20% would take another 20 years — as long as everything goes right — which is probably the best-case scenario as it stands now. This included a rapid uptake of electrifying everything — vehicles, aircrafts, rail and bus transport, and all appliances — not to mention one of the most coordinated efforts of government action probably ever.
To say it’s ambitious is probably an understatement.
But, despite all of these assumptions, one thing remained. The first 80% appears to be the easy part, and it’s one thing most engineers, scientists, and researchers agree on — skeptics and optimists alike. So, let’s see what it takes to get there first.
A unified grid
To begin producing more renewable energy, the renewable energy we generate must have somewhere to go. Today, that’s not exactly the case.
Right now, our existing grid is divided into three major parts and exchanges very little power between them: the western interconnection, the eastern interconnection and Texas. A national grid would allow the states that produce more renewable energy than they can consume to export it to states that don’t.
Let’s take wind energy for example. According to a report from the Wind Energy Association, 15 states account for 87% of the wind energy potential but are projected to only account for 30% of the nation’s energy demand by 2050. Our transmission infrastructure and our grid are in the way.
It comes as no surprise that the 15 states that generate the most wind energy lie in the central-U.S.: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.
It should also come as no surprise that the demand for this energy lies outside the renewable-rich region.
By connecting these regions together via high-voltage transmission lines, congestion can be relieved on both ends of the line. The central states can produce as much renewable energy as possible without worrying if it’s going to be consumed or not, maximizing the use of generated renewable energy while balancing load demands across the country.
What will it take to unify the grid and unlock the full renewable potential of this region and the U.S.?
Wood Mackenzie says we need to double the network of our existing transmission lines from 200,000 miles to 400,000 miles. Not only would this help unify the grid, but it’d also establish a transmission infrastructure that could actually transfer the amount of energy required to power the U.S. completely on renewable energy alone.
The sooner this happens, the better. Right now, 20 states have already committed to 100% renewable energy goals, and virtually all of them lie outside of the wind-energy-rich central U.S.: Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, Washington, California, New Mexico, New York, Maine.