An analysis has been made to determine if there would be enough electricity in the US by 2050 to support a carbon-free future to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Assuming that carbon capture and sequestration is not practical, a mix of nuclear and renewable energy power plants was examined.
Existing fossil power plants and nuclear plants represent 86% of the electricity that was produced in 2012. By 2050, to be carbon-free, all of these fossil plants would have to be phased out, while all present nuclear plants would have reached the end of their operating licenses. According to the analysis, if we just replaced present fossil and nuclear power plants on a one-for-one basis, over three new power plants would have to be brought on line every month for the next 432 months. The cost for replacing present capacity and allowing for a 40% increase in demand by 2050, could be as high as $5.4 trillion dollars. Besides this huge price tag there are significant infrastructure problems that will limit the rate at which new capacity can be brought on line. Infrastructure issues may end up being more constraining than financial ones.
For example, several years ago the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) calculated that it would take 100,000 large wind turbines to meet 20% of the nation’s electricity needs by 2030. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has calculated that about 15,000 miles of new, extra high voltage power lines at a cost of $80 billion dollars would be necessary to connect these 100,000 wind turbines to the existing grid.
To support a carbon-free future by 2050, America needs a comprehensive, multi-step approach that ultimately achieves the following goals:
- Reduce the demand for electricity through more efficient end use devices,
- Extract more electricity from existing power plants,
- Multiply the usefulness of electricity,
- Lower the costs for new power plants, and
- Have a diverse supply of electricity.
Can a carbon-free portfolio provide all the electricity America needs? What are the biggest barriers to a carbon-free future for America?