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The Path Away from Fossil Fuels and Toward Renewable Energy in America

Published May 18, 2021

By Marvin Cummings Jr., PhD

The Path Away from Fossil Fuels and Toward Renewable Energy in America
The Path Away from Fossil Fuels and Toward Renewable Energy in America
The Path Away from Fossil Fuels and Toward Renewable Energy in America

Martin Keller, PhD, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and president of the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, which operates NREL for the U.S. Department of Energy, has a bold vision for the future—complete decarbonization of the United States energy sector by 2050—and he is charting an aggressive course for NREL toward this goal.  We recently got a chance to sit down with Director Keller to discuss his thoughts on the future of energy in America, the importance of community engagement, and future smart grid technologies that could truly re-shape the global economy.

As the US transitions away from fossil fuels to a more sustainable energy economy, how do US efforts compare with those of other developed nations around the world? 

If you look at the clean energy transition and towards deep decarbonization, the US is still at the forefront of innovations in this space.  However, Germany is ahead of the US in the deployment of new renewable energy technologies.  On-average, the percentage of renewable energy on Germany’s electric grid is significantly higher than what is available in the United States.  Japan is a little late to the game on renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, because historically, Japan put more emphasis on nuclear.  There is a strong effort in the US to produce clean electricity by 2035 and completely decarbonize by 2050.  So, the deployment of renewable technology will really accelerate over the next few years, especially since solar and wind are becoming the cheapest ways of producing electricity.

Over the next 30 years, is the US capable of transitioning to renewables? 

NREL has conducted an interesting and comprehensive study with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which is focused on this very question: What will it take to get to 100% renewable energy in the City of Los Angeles?  The study modeled every LA building to understand where solar panels could be placed on rooftops.  It remodeled transmission lines, it modeled all future electric charging stations for transportation and worked with underserved communities to address issues around environmental justice.  Results from this study show overwhelmingly that yes, a switch to 100% renewable energy can be done.  It will be a challenge, but if the US commits to this effort and genuinely engages with local communities, I am optimistic this can be achieved on the timeline of 2035 or 2050.

There are a host of renewable energy technology solutions available.  What will be the role of solar, wind, and other technologies in the future renewable energy economy?

What is clear is that there was once a time when just one energy solution—fossil fuels—met all of our energy needs.  This period in history is clearly over.  It will no longer be a single technology. It will be a mix of different solutions.  To fully decarbonize the US economy, it will require a hard look at all clean energy technologies, including nuclear.  Cost will be a major driver.  Right now, solar and wind are by far the cheapest and nuclear is still very expensive.  But small, modular reactors or micro-reactors could change this dynamic in the future as potential energy storage devices.  This is an area where we need innovation.

Renewable energy solutions will also look different by region—California will look different from New Hampshire, and Texas will look very different from Ohio. These regional differences will determine what renewable energy technologies will be brought into the mix.  If the US wants to do this successfully, it will need to have an integrated plan across the United States.

A successful transition to renewable energy will require seamless integration into the US electric grid.  How must the grid change to accommodate renewables? 

The US electric grid will require a completely different architecture that is driven by smart, autonomous machine learning processes, which are secure and resilient.  The main pillar for the US’s future energy needs will be electricity.  The new grid will be bi-directional with electricity generated by solar panels on your roof, which can then be sold to your neighbor.  Electric cars will be plugged into the grid for storage or charging.  Electricity will even be used to create other hydrocarbon fuels for use in airplanes and ships.

The future US grid will be powered by millions of electronic devices.  This will not happen only because more renewables will be on the grid.  This will happen because consumers demand more flexibility.  Consumers will want smart homes.  They will want to control the house thermostat from their cars, and will run this all with an app.  This alone will require a radically different grid, governed by autonomous energy systems and smart algorithms.  It will be more integrated, much more distributed and almost self-healing.  If done right, the future US electric grid system will be ultimately more resilient and less expensive.

Interested in learning more about the future of renewable energy?

Register today for the webinar: A World Powered by Renewable Energy, hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences on May 25.  Featured speakers for this webinar include George Crabtree, PhD, a Senior Scientist, a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at Argonne National Laboratory and a Distinguished Professor of Physics, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and William (Bill) Tumas, PhD, the Associate Laboratory Director for Materials, Chemical, and Computational Science at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The Path Away from Fossil Fuels and Toward Renewable Energy in America