Electricity is an essential cornerstone in the modern world, illuminating our homes, businesses, and industries while powering progress and innovation. Currently, the landscape of electricity generation stands at a crossroads. While fossil fuels have historically met our power demands, the contemporary world is pivoting towards more sustainable, renewable alternatives. As the energy sector’s evolution unfolds, it will be guided by the progress of renewable energy, advancements in storage technologies, and the crucial role of low-carbon nuclear energy. This transition marks the dawning of a new era, where sustainability will shape the foundation of electricity generation.
The Transition to Renewable Energy
In response to the escalating climate crisis, nations worldwide have set a collective goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, signaling the necessary shift towards sustainable practices and environmental conservation. Natural gas is often touted as the transitional energy source guiding us on the path to net zero. While natural gas is cleaner burning than other fossil fuels, it still contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. As the global call for sustainability and reducing harmful emissions grows louder, it is imperative to advance renewable energy technologies and storage. Below, we explore the diverse array of renewable energy sources positioned to reshape the future of electricity in the United States.
Solar is the most abundant renewable resource at our disposal. Within an hour and a half, the amount of sunlight striking the earth’s surface is enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a full year. It is the most affordable and fastest growing renewable source currently available. As solar panels and other photovoltaic technology becomes less expensive and more accessible, this valuable resource will become even more prevalent in the energy landscape.
As of 2022, solar energy accounts for 14.2% of the United States’ renewable energy consumption. By the end of 2023, over half of America’s new generating capacity is expected to come from solar power– a significant stride towards sustainability. It will be the most solar capacity added in a single year. The biggest challenge with solar is it’s an intermittency – only producing electricity when the sun is unobstructed. In order to fully grasp the potential of solar energy, we will need greater advancements in energy storage technologies.
Wind is an incredibly powerful energy source, especially when installed in an area prone to consistent, strong winds. The top five wind-generating states – Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas and Illinois – produce more than half of America’s wind electricity. In 2020, Texas generated 92.9 TWh of wind electricity, three times the amount of the second-largest generating state.
As of 2022, wind energy accounts for 29% of the United State’s renewable energy consumption. This is even more impressive when considering the United States’ wind energy capacity was almost nonexistent twenty years ago. The growth is due in large part to tax incentives, sustainability goals, and the decrease in the cost of installation. As of January 2023, wind powered electricity had a capacity of 141.3 GW with proposed projects anticipated to increase wind capacity by an additional 7.1 GW by the year’s end. Despite it’s intermittency, this energy source can be installed both onshore and offshore, allowing us to take advantage of strong coastal winds. As wind farms expand, and energy storage technologies advance, wind power has become a powerhouse in the renewable energy landscape.
Hydroelectric power is the oldest form of renewable energy available. Ancient Greeks used water wheels to grind flour as much as 2000 years ago, however hydroelectric power wasn’t harnessed for electricity generation in the United States until the 1920’s. When Americans think of hydroelectric power, they typically visualize the grandiose Hoover Dam, however hydroelectric systems can be small enough to harness power from an irrigation ditch. All but two states utilize hydroelectric power, proving it a much more versatile renewable energy source than most people realize.
Hydroelectric power accounts for 18% of the United States’ renewable energy consumption. Any geographic area with a source of running water has the potential to produce hydroelectric power. In 2020, hydroelectric methods generated an impressive 66% of Washington state’s total electricity . While solar and wind power have gained popularity in recent years, hydroelectric power will remain a reliable foundation for the renewable energy landscape. Historically, hydroelectric power has been limited to dams, reservoirs, and rivers, however advancements in technology aim to harness water energy from ocean waves, tides, and currents. As oceanic hydroelectric technology advances, United States’ coastal areas are likely to adopt more of this renewable energy source.
Geothermal energy is harnessed through the heat underneath the earth’s surface. It’s one of the cleanest and most reliable renewable sources available. The heat within earth’s interior is constantly replenished by natural decay underground with the estimation it will be readily available for billions of years. Furthermore, geothermal power plants have a significantly smaller footprint than other energy sources – geothermal systems can even be retrofitted into existing homes and buildings. Another benefit of geothermal is zero greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only water vapor as waste. Unfortunately, this renewable energy source has constraints, limiting it’s implementation to specific geographic regions with geothermal reserves. Most hotspots in the U.S. are located in the western states.
For areas with ideal geological conditions, geothermal is an incredibly cost-effective and sustainable way to produce electricity. As of 2022, geothermal energy accounted for 1.6% of the country’s renewable consumption. As the world pivots away from heating and cooling their homes with fossil fuels like natural gas, geothermal systems will gain much more popularity. Retrofitting buildings with geothermal heat pumps (GHP) is becoming an increasingly popular way for property owners to lower their utility expenses while also reducing their carbon footprint.
Biogas/Renewable natural gas (RNG)
Biogas, also commonly known as renewable natural gas (RNG), is a renewable energy source created by harnessing the gas from the decay process of biomass. Biomass is specifically the organic materials used to create this fuel. Materials used to create biomass include agricultural waste, animal manure, wood processing waste, municipal waste, and food waste. As biomass decomposes, either naturally or through anaerobic processing, biogas facilities harness the natural methane produced and convert it into RNG through further purification processes. RNG production can be particularly valuable in agricultural regions and areas with a large forestry industry.
The RNG industry is growing rapidly. Power from various types of biomass accounts for 37% of the United States’ renewable energy consumption in 2022. RNG will be a crucial renewable energy source as the world reduces its reliance on conventional natural gas. Anywhere there is waste, biogas can be produced. Landfill gas recovery systems turn literal trash into a treasured resource in cities across the U.S. Due to its rapid adoption, the International Energy Agency (EIA) estimates demand for biogas and RNG will grow 20% by 2040 based on its current trajectory.
Technological Advancements in Energy Storage
A major criticism of renewable energy sources is their intermittent nature. Advancements in energy storage technology aim to improve renewable reliability and resolve intermittency issues. With a robust energy storage system, the national grid will have much more stability and resilience in the face of fluctuating weather conditions affecting renewables like solar or wind. It also builds up an energy reserve from consistent energy sources, like hydroelectric or geothermal. Several popular variations of battery and storage technologies exist today, each with their own specific applications.
Lithium-ion batteries power millions of lives every day from laptops and cell phones to hybrid and electric vehicles. More recently, lithium-ion technology has advanced into battery energy storage systems (BESS) used to improve electrical grid reliability, integrate renewable energy sources, and provide relief to the energy grid during peak hours. Lithium-ion batteries are highly popular due to their rechargeable nature and having the highest energy density of any commercial battery. The drawback of Lithium-ion is overheating and their highly flammable nature. These challenges make it difficult to transport them in bulk. Due to these disadvantages, lithium-ion batteries are ideal in small-scale applications rather than grid-scale energy storage, however recent advancements in lithium-ion technology aim to address these issues.
Flow batteries are rechargeable storage systems which use electrolytes to facilitate the flow of energy to and from the battery. This technology will build the foundation for grid-scale battery energy storage. While lithium-ion batteries are difficult to scale-up for larger applications, flow batteries have a much simpler and safer scaling process – they simply need larger electrolyte tanks. Large scale flow batteries are roughly the size of a shipping container. The rising price of vanadium, a main component in flow battery construction, is a growing challenge in advancing this technology. Further developments are underway to replace vanadium with comparable organic materials. If science is able to find an organic alternative, flow battery storage systems could sustain grid-scale solar and wind energy and resolve renewable intermittency issues.
Additional energy storage technologies
Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH)
Pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is the most common and widely used form of energy storage technologies. Currently, PSH accounts for 96% of all utility-scale energy storage capacity in the United States in 2022. PSH facilities generate and store electricity by moving water between two reservoirs at different elevations. Pumped Storage facilities are vital to grid reliability, accounting for 22 gigawatts of electricity-generating capacity and 550 gigawatt-hours of energy storage across the country. This number is sure to increase as older facilities retrofit their systems with storage capacity technology – encouraged through the Bipartisan infrastructure Law of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The largest barrier to widespread implementation of PSH facilities is geographic constraints. PSH facilities do require a landscape with varying elevations in order to harness the kinetic energy of flowing water. This requirement limits most PSH implementation to mountainous regions in the East and West.
Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES)
Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) is a newer storage technology with great potential, however it had a slow start in the energy landscape. The first CAES plant was built in Germany in 1979, and the second was built in Alabama in 1991. CAES technology didn’t pick up steam until recently, due to global discussions about the worsening climate crisis and increased efforts to pivot towards clean energy. This technology is a possible solution to the intermittency issues of solar and wind energy due to its scalability and long-duration storage. CAES systems use the potential energy of pressurized air, often in underground caverns. When the reserve is needed, CAES plants release pressure in the cavern to convert energy into electricity. The focus of recent CAES Research and development is improving energy conversion efficiency as well as how it pairs with other energy generating technologies – especially solar and wind power.
Thermal Energy Storage
Thermal energy storage technology could become game-changing technology for the decarbonization of buildings. Application can be in small or large-scale systems for electricity generation as well as heating and cooling. Recently, particle thermal energy storage systems have risen in popularity, which use excess solar or wind energy to heat thermal storage material, like silica sand. When energy is needed, the hot silica sand is gravity-fed through a heat exchanger, generating the thermal energy into electricity. The modular design of thermal energy storage systems are cost-effective, scalable, and can repurpose retired coal or gas-fired power plants into sustainable storage facilities. There are very few constraints with thermal energy storage systems. Most buildings and communities can benefit from thermal energy storage, contributing to greater grid stability.
Creating a Smart Electrical Grid
The United States’ electrical grid was established over a century ago. Energy demand was significantly lower and our electricity needs were simple. Modern life is significantly more complex with much greater demands for energy and much more complicated technology to power. As new technologies have emerged over the past several decades, the traditional energy grid has updated. However we’ve reached the dawn of a new era – where smart technologies are critical to monitoring energy demand and consumption. Smart grids address modern energy demand by incorporating sensors, software, and reporting technology to provide better communication between consumers and utility companies. This technology maintains grid stability and reliability with advanced monitoring tools automating the flow of energy based on supply, demand, and storage.
Modernizing the United States’ electrical grid into a smart grid is crucial for the transition to clean energy resources. These technologies oversee intermittent renewable energy capacity, access energy storage during peak demand periods, and alert utility companies of any outages caused by damaged equipment or extreme weather. Furthermore, smart grids implement an advanced metering infrastructure for reporting customer energy usage and automates energy distribution. Transitioning into a smart grid is vital for the future of electricity – enabling greater adoption of renewable energy and the ability to ensure reliable energy for all.
What is the Future of Fossil Fuels?
Eventually fossil fuels will become a nearly obsolete energy source in the future, however it will be a challenging journey to get there. In 2022, fossil fuels accounted for 79% of the United States’ energy consumption. Large scale coal production has been in decline due to significant health and environmental hazards during mining, production, and processing. American fossil fuel consumption is still quite high. Coal accounts for 10% of energy use, natural gas accounts for 33% and oil is still the largest energy source, accounting for 36% of energy consumed. With this level of consumption, it will be a long journey to net zero emissions. However, times are starting to change for fossil fuels. A recent announcement by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that U.S. solar and wind power will surpass coal-fired electrical generation in 2024.
During the recent U.N. Climate Conference (COP28), world leaders gathered to address dependence on fossil fuels and how to get back on track with achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The Biden-Harris administration signed on with 130 countries committing to the orderly decline of fossil fuel usage, including a ban on new coal-fired power plants. In order to meet these goals, members of this pledge committed to tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling efficiency improvements by 2030. If world leaders can follow through on these promises, we’ll be on the right path to a sustainable future, championing the transition to renewable energy.
Government initiatives and policies
In order to achieve these goals, United States energy policies and incentives need to provide the framework. Major political initiatives, such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, incentivize the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. Both policies are investments to fortify American infrastructure to withstand the challenges of climate change and project us into a sustainable future. They include tax incentives and funding to facilitate America’s clean energy transition.
Beyond policies and incentives at the federal level, there are state and local incentives and regulations to consider as well. The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy and Efficiency (DSIRE) is a valuable resource for business owners and homeowners to find local incentives for renewables and efficiency upgrades. The United States has demonstrated its dedication to supporting any person or organization in the pursuit of reducing their carbon footprint through a wide array of incentives and policies.
The Role of Nuclear Power
Nuclear power has a history where use fluctuates based on ever-changing public opinion. The production of nuclear energy peaked in the late 80’s, starting a slow decline in use from 1990-2020. The United States decommissioned 18 nuclear reactors during this period of time. Despite this, the United States is still the greatest producer of nuclear power – accounting for 30% of global generation. Currently, there are 92 active nuclear reactors in the United States, with another starting construction as of August 2023. Nuclear power is the largest source of clean energy in the United States, providing 47% of the country’s carbon-free electricity in 2022. Despite having a divided public opinion, nuclear is a crucial component in the global energy transition.
At the conclusion of COP28, global leaders agreed it is necessary to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by utilizing the clean energy production and high reliability of nuclear energy. As a result of this conference, the White House announced they will triple nuclear capacity by 2050. As a world leader in nuclear power, the United States also committed to jumpstarting Small Modular Reactor (SMR) deployments globally for countries in need. SMRs are nuclear power production facilities with a much smaller footprint than traditional reactors. This technology is built in one location before being shipped, commissioned, and operated at a secondary site. This White House initiative will be groundbreaking for providing access to clean energy generation in developing countries. While previously, nuclear energy demand was waning, the updated climate initiatives of COP28 have championed nuclear as a low-carbon solution in the pursuit of a clean energy future.
A Bright Future for Electricity
The future of electricity in the United States is intricately tied to the transition towards sustainability. As we address our dependence on fossil fuels and its effects on the environment, several advancements herald a new era: the rise of renewable energy sources, advancements in storage capacity, and a commitment to implementing a national smart grid. Governmental policy plays a critical role, steering the nation towards cleaner practices and incentivizing improvement. The United States stands at the forefront of global sustainability efforts. However, this journey demands collective dedication to achieve a sustainable energy future.
With more than a decade of industry experience, Integrity Energy is dedicated to helping you navigate the energy sector’s complexities. Contact an Integrity Energy representative today to discover customized commercial energy plans for your business, supporting your personal journey towards energy efficiency and sustainability.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the current percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources in the U.S.?
According to the Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources accounted for 13% of the United States’ energy generation in 2022.
How does the cost of renewable energy compare to fossil fuel-based electricity?
The cost of renewable energy is becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity. States prioritizing hydroelectric power, such as Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, historically have lower energy bills than other states. Furthermore, as solar and wind power technologies advance, their equipment and installation becomes significantly cheaper, enabling more Americans to make a seamless switch to renewable energy.
What are the major barriers to renewable energy adoption in the U.S.?
The barriers for renewable energy adoption include the challenges of updating the national grid’s infrastructure, intermittency issues with renewables, changing political policies, and the initial investment in implementing renewable systems. Political policy is slowly addressing these obstacles, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as technological innovation.
How can energy storage technologies help overcome the intermittency of renewable sources?
Energy storage technologies can help overcome the intermittency of renewable sources by storing excess energy. Power generated during peak production times can be released during peak periods or when renewable energy generation is minimal.
What is the federal government’s role in promoting renewable energy?
The federal government plays a crucial role in promoting renewable energy by implementing policies, providing incentives, funding research and development, and setting regulatory frameworks to encourage the adoption and growth of renewable technologies.
Does nuclear power expansion have any potential risks?
The expansion of nuclear power carries potential risks including concerns about nuclear accidents, the management and disposal of radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation, and high upfront costs. Requiring strict safety regulations, further technological advancements, and public awareness mitigate these challenges.
What are the prospects of grid-scale battery storage in the U.S.?
The prospects of grid-scale battery storage in the U.S. are promising. Due in large part by increasing renewable energy integration, advancements in battery technology, and supportive government policies. These factors have the potential to enhance grid stability, reliability, and facilitate a transition to a more sustainable energy system.
How does the smart grid improve energy efficiency and reliability?
The smart grid improves energy efficiency and reliability by incorporating advanced technologies to enhance real-time monitoring, optimize energy distribution, and enable two-way communication. These features allow for better management of energy resources and more responsive and resilient grid operations.
What are the key challenges in transitioning to a more sustainable electricity system?
The key challenges in transitioning to a more sustainable electricity system include overcoming dependence on fossil fuels, integrating intermittent renewable sources, updating infrastructure, and addressing energy storage limitations.
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