In 2020, renewable energy sources in the U.S. generated 834 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—enough to supply over 100 million homes with electricity for a year.
With that number, the U.S. set its new record for renewable energy generated in one year making renewables the second most prevalent source of electricity ahead of coal and nuclear. Renewables accounted for 21% of all electricity generation.
This is exciting news for the clean energy world and a promising sign that we’re headed in the right direction for achieving our ambitious climate goals. But experts still debate whether a 100% energy grid is really feasible. As states execute on their plans to cut emissions, they’re facing technical and economic challenges that have made some energy experts question whether we can really build a grid that is entirely powered by renewables.
But we’re optimists at Perch. While there are many economic, political, and technological challenges to overcome, we believe a 100% energy future is not only possible but inevitable. Here are the top challenges that stand in between us and a greener grid, and the reasons that we think a 100% clean energy grid lies ahead in our future.
There are two common definitions of a 100% renewable energy future.
The second common definition refers to a future where renewables would account for the bulk of the energy supply, but the grid would still rely on some coal, natural gas and nuclear to ensure that the power supply remains reliable. In this system, governments would purchase renewable energy from elsewhere to offset the non-renewable energy that it uses. This system is more accurately referred to as a “net” 100% renewable energy future.
A net 100% renewable energy future is a great goal for states and countries around the world, but it’s not quite as impactful. In this article, we’ll focus on the first definition.
There are two main challenges that we need to overcome to create a 100% renewable-powered energy grid. Both of these challenges stem from the fact that our most abundant renewable sources—wind and solar—are highly variable, so-called intermittent production, meaning they only produce power when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
The first challenge is an economic issue. In short, it arises because the times when there is the highest demand for electricity don’t always align with the times when there is the greatest supply of electricity. In other words, people still need energy when the sun isn’t out and the wind isn’t blowing, but solar and wind farms aren’t producing as much energy during these periods.
The result of this mismatch between supply and demand could be massive rate hikes. That’s because there are solutions to keep these costs down such as energy storage and demand management, but they’re still very expensive. Lithium-ion batteries, though much cheaper than they once were, are not yet a cost-effective solution to the variability problem (but massive investment and innovation in battery storage technology is hoping to change this soon).
This leads many experts to believe that getting to 100% renewable energy would simply be too expensive. Some believe that we need to keep some gas or coal plants so that we have dispatchable energy when renewable energy supply is low.
The second challenge is a technical challenge. As we drastically increase the amount of solar and wind energy on the grid, many experts are worried that the grid is not equipped to handle the added electricity. They predict that the grid would need massive upgrades to be able to sustain the increased supply of renewables and reliably send electricity to households.
Renewable energy is now one of the cheapest ways to generate electricity in the world. In fact, in many markets, the cost of building a new solar farm from scratch and operating it for multiple years is now cheaper and more cost-effective than operating an already existing coal plant. And these prices are expected to continue to drop as time goes on and technology improves.
A cheap renewable energy supply means cheap electricity for energy users—from homeowners and renters to businesses, schools, hospitals and more. That’s something most of us can get behind. And as a cleaner, cheaper electricity becomes more widely accessible, users are beginning to cash in and take advantage of this sweet opportunity. What does that mean for clean energy? It means that renewable energy development is not only getting support from governments and businesses who are making clean energy commitments, it’s also getting support from homeowners and other electricity users.
This is probably the most important reason that we believe a renewable energy future is inevitable. The technology already exists. Not only is it cheaper in some energy markets to build and operate solar farms than it is to operate already existing coal plants, but energy storage is becoming cheaper and more widespread. Of course, there is still much to be done to implement these innovative solutions at an economically viable scale, but the fact that we have a clear vision of what our future could look like from a technological viewpoint is an incredibly encouraging sign. Just check out some of the cool storage solutions that have already been invented.
10 years ago, most energy experts did not expect us to be where we are today when it comes to renewables. Today, energy like solar and wind are far cheaper than anticipated and the renewables industry continues to exceed expectations. Although there are many political, technological, and economic hurdles that we will have to overcome to get to a 100% renewable energy future, we have already demonstrated immense innovation in this space, and there’s no reason to suggest we’ll slow down.