The US economy will need to increase its electric generation capacity by up to 480% if the nation is to reach its 2050 decarbonization goals, according to a study unveiled Nov. 8 during the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
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The study, jointly released by the Electric Power Research Institute and GTI Energy, found that the US would need to build its firm capacity to between 1,140 GW and 1,450 GW – compared to 850 GW today – and its wind and solar capacity to between 800 GW and 3,700 GW – compared to 200 GW today – to reach the midcentury climate goals set in the Paris Accord.
Within each of these ranges are various scenarios that project different technology advancements and fuel costs. The high end of the wind and solar capacity projection, for instance, assumes high levels of hydrogen produced via electrolysis. Firm capacity resources, which is needed to balance intermittent resources, include nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen, hydro, bioenergy and natural gas with or without carbon capture.
On the low end, combined firm and intermittent resources would need to increase by 160% from today's levels to 1,650 GW. On the high end, electric generation resources would need to increase by 480% to 4,860 GW.
"The optimal mix of renewables and clean firm resources varies by region and depends on interactions with decarbonization options outside the electric sector, such as opportunities for negative emissions and demand for electrolytic hydrogen," the study said. "In all scenarios, new gas and/or hydrogen-fueled electric generating capacity plays a critical role in providing resource adequacy and flexibility for reliable power generation."
Fossil fuel to low-carbon fuels
The US currently uses fossil fuels for 86% of its electricity generation, but by 2050 that share could fall to between 53% and 9%, depending on the deployment of carbon management technologies, the study found.
In of 2020, the US produced a total of 93.6 quadrillion Btus of power. While fossil fuels made up the largest portion of that share, bioenergy comprised 5%, nuclear comprised nearly 9% and renewables comprised over 2%.
Fossil fuels are projected to drop to a projected 9% level in a 2050 scenario where geologic storage of CO2 is unavailable and bioenergy feedstock supply is limited. And under a 2050 scenario where fossil fuel feedstock costs and CO2 transport and storage costs are high, total generation is expected to be at around 60 quadrillion Btus, where fossil fuels would comprise 25% of that fuel mix and fossil fuels with carbon capture would comprise around 11%.
In a 2050 scenario where all clean energy and carbon management technologies are fully developed and widely deployed, and where fossil fuel feedstock costs are low, total generation would amount to 76.6 quadrillion Btus. Fossil fuels would comprise around 28% of the fuel mix while fossil fuel combined with carbon capture is at 24%.
According to Neva Espinoza, vice president of low-carbon resources at EPRI, the analysis highlights the importance of optionality in meeting nationwide clean energy targets.
"Above all else, the energy system of tomorrow will need greater flexibility if the US is to reach its mid-century climate goals affordably, reliably, and equitably," Espinoza said. "When it comes to developing the full portfolio of energy resources, the decisions industry and government leaders make today will directly impact the options available in the decades ahead."