By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When will it be possible for the US — and our houses — to be powered mainly by clean, renewable energy?

Wind power uses no water and emits no air pollution (Photo: Blue-Green Alliance)

This simple question, whose answer is so vital to our national economic and health prospects, has been treated by many vested interests as nearly unanswerable. The fossil fuel industries, traditional power providers and our federal and state governments have stressed, at various times and places, that it is ever-so hard to predict when the US could achieve a fully realized clean energy future.

Their characterization of the clean energy landscape as amorphous and unknowable has a basis in reality. The clean  energy revolution faces many obstacles. There’s the fact that the US has three electricity grids (East, West and Texas grids) that will need updating to accept renewables. Accomplish that and you still have to deal with multiple government bodies that must move slinky-like in the same direction. That would be the federal government, the 50 state governments, the dizzying array of local, county and utility boards and entities. Permitting new energy already can be a nightmare even when all parties are trying to facilitate it.

Now factor in the power juggernauts — the coal and oil industries and the politicians who carry their torches. They’ve gotten a pass on pollution and together they’ve created a political climate that cleaves to the status quo and perpetrates circular arguments against renewables, like the one that points out clean energy is a tiny fraction of the power supply, therefore it will never amount to much. Like the automobile or airplane never amounted to much?

The deck is clearly, or smoggily, stacked in favor of fossil fuels because that’s the current infrastructure, complete with locked gates and sentinels at the door, like a massive but aging mansion.

But what if the US pushed for clean energy and overcame this nest of pitfalls? Could the nation be the next Germany, driving full-bore toward and achieving a future powered by non-polluting energy sources — and when would that happen?

Sooner than you might think. A report  just released by the National Renewable Energy Lab (part of DOE) says that by 2050 the US could get 80 percent of its energy from renewables —biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind — provided that:

  • The electric system is “flexible” enough to carry these new power sources and maximize power from fluctuating sources like wind and solar power
  • This new grid system provides for power storage, more responsive “loads” and additional transmission carrying capacity. In other words, the new “smart” grid enables the acceptance and balancing of these new power sources.

Reaching this benchmark would result in “deep reductions in electric sector greenhouse gas emissions and water use.”

Hell-o yes! Getting 80 percent of our energy from renewables would obviously clear the skies of the mercury and carbon pollution that’s creating an unhealthy environment for beings that breathe and driving climate change, which is on course to zap all life eventually.

NREL reports that this level of renewable energy is possible using technologies “that are commercially available today.”

Much of the NREL report is best consumed by engineers and scientists, but there’s also plain English, like this point:

“The central conclusion of the analysis is that renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States.”

More good news here:

“Assumptions reflecting the extent of this improvement are based on incremental or evolutionary improvements to currently commercial technologies and do not reflect U.S. Department of Energy activities to further lower renewable technology costs so that they achieve parity with conventional technologies.”

NREL is not positing a pie-in-the-sky scenario based on a pile-on of government subsidies for clean energy, nor is it counting on the technology getting better. The report sticks to what could be accomplished by applying current know-how.

But you can bet your Las Vegas geothermal plant that the technology will get better.

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