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Expanding Renewable Energy in the U.S. Demands a Corresponding Upgrade in Electric Grid Capability

  • Renewable share of U.S. energy production expected to increase substantially in the next few decades
  • Traditional grids are built for energy generation from fossil fuel sources, making them ill-suited for the more variable production of renewables
  • “Smart grids” would require multibillion dollar investment but would create more flexibility based on production and demand

Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind have been hailed as a way to meet electricity needs while reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. While the share of renewables in U.S. energy production is expected to expand from its current share of 17.5 percent to about 50 percent in 2030, a substantial grid update will be necessary beyond this point to distribute power generated from these sources.

The current grid is aligned to energy production from fossil fuel sources, where a large power plant distributes energy toward cities and other sources of high demand. Incorporating more renewables would result in energy production from scattered sources including excess power sold into the grid from privately owned residential wind turbines and rooftop solar panels.

The grid must also be capable of responding to the more variable energy production of renewables, including power stored in batteries during times of excess production. This has led to more focus on “smart grid” innovations, such as predictive technology and enhanced power flow management. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is working with a system to address the challenge, as well as goals such as improving response to power outages.

Last year, a report from the Congressional Research Service says the implementation of a smart grid would require state and federal laws and regulation as well as new infrastructure, including the possibility of high-voltage transmission lines. It estimates that the upgrade would cost between $260 billion and $526 billion.

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