The US National Academies of Science has looked at the potential for renewable power in its home country, and determined that current solar and wind technologies could probably scale to supply 20 percent of our electricity. Beyond that, however, we’re going to need to fix the grid.
A number of renewable energy technologies are poised for significant growth. Wind turbine production is booked for several years, while several companies have reached the point where they’re able to produce a Gigawatt of capacity annually. Although the US has started from a small base, these power sources have grown at an annual rate of about 20 percent for most of the past decade, a period in which demand only grew about one percent annually. The US National Academies of science has now examined the prospects for continued growth, and sees no limits within the next decade and beyond, but, should growth continue, there are going to have to be significant changes to our national grid.
The report was prepared as part of the America’s Energy Future Project, which is supported by everyone from General Electric to the Kavli and Keck charitable foundations. It’s the second of several planned reports; the next one will target prospects for energy-efficient technology.
The report excludes hydropower, which is renewable, but constrained by the availability of appropriate water resources. At the moment, these other sources—geothermal, solar, biomass, and wind—account for about 2.5 percent of US electricity generating capacity, and estimates are that, under a business-as-usual scenario, they would reach eight percent by 2030. The report addresses the question of whether they’d be capable of scaling, should the US determine it wanted to increase reliance on these technologies (the total available solar and wind energy within the US, at 13.9 million TWh, dwarfs any reasonable future projections of demand). The authors limited their consideration of biomass use because they felt it was likely that the government would promote its use as a transportation fuel.