Distributed Energy Resources Play An Increasing Role In The “Green Future”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and numerous other governmental and private organizations and agencies, the “grid will continue to go green,” and DER (distributed energy resources) will play an ever-increasing role in this journey.

An August 2022 report by DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) looked at the future of the “green grid” and how it may unfold. In specific, the report focused on the goal of completely decarbonizing the electric grid by 2035.

The report examined the types of clean energy technologies and the scale and pace of deployment needed to achieve 100 percent clean electricity, or a net-zero power grid, in the United States by 2035. Overall, NREL identified multiple pathways to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 that would produce significant benefits, but the exact technology mix and costs will be determined by research and development, manufacturing, and infrastructure investment decisions over the next decade.

“There is no one single solution to transitioning the power sector to renewable and clean energy technologies,” said Paul Denholm, principal investigator and lead author of the study. “There are several key challenges that we still need to understand and will need to be addressed over the next decade to enable the speed and scale of deployment necessary to achieve the 2035 goal.”

The new report came on the heels of the enactment of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which, in tandem with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), is estimated to have the most pronounced impact on the power sector, with initial analyses estimating that, as a result of the IRA and BIL, grid emissions could decline to 68 percent to 78 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

In all modeled scenarios considered by the NREL in its report, new clean energy technologies are deployed at an unprecedented scale and rate to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. As modeled, wind and solar energy provide 60 percent to 80 percent of generation in the least-cost electricity mix in 2035, and the overall generation capacity grows to roughly three times the 2020 level by 2035, including a combined two terawatts of wind and solar.

To achieve those levels would require an additional 40 to 90 gigawatts of solar on the grid per year and 70 to 150 gigawatts of wind per year by the end of this decade under this modeled scenario. That’s more than four times the current annual deployment levels for each technology.

“The U.S. can get to 80%–90% clean electricity with technologies that are available today, although it requires a massive acceleration in deployment rates,” said Brian Sergi, NREL analyst and a co-author of the study. “To get from there to 100%, there are many potentially important technologies that have not yet been deployed at scale, so there is uncertainty about the final mix of technologies that can fully decarbonize the power system. The technology mix that is ultimately achieved will depend on advances in R&D in further improving cost and performance as well as the pace and scale of investment.”

In all scenarios, significant transmission must also be added in many locations, mostly to deliver energy from wind-rich regions to major load centers in the Eastern United States. As modeled, the total transmission capacity in 2035 is one to almost three times today’s capacity, which would require between 1,400 and 10,100 miles of new high-capacity lines per year, assuming new construction starts in 2026.

“Decarbonizing the power system is a necessary step if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided,” said Patrick Brown, NREL analyst and another co-author of the study. “The benefits of a zero-carbon grid outweigh the costs in each of the more than 100 scenarios modeled in this study, and accelerated cost declines for renewable and clean energy technologies could lead to even larger benefits.

” The NREL report added that significant future research is needed to better understand the implications for power system operations, grid reliability, impacts on the distribution system, electrification and efficiency investment costs and adoption, and clean fuels production infrastructure investment costs. Requirements and limitations of resources, including land and water; supply chain and workforce requirements; and other economy-wide decarbonization considerations will also need to be considered.

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