The Challenge of the Last Few Percent: Quantifying the Costs & Emissions Benefits of a 100% Renewable U.S. Electricity System
Only two decades ago, some scientists were skeptical we could integrate more than about 20% renewable energy generation on the U.S. power grid. But we hit that milestone in 2020 — so, these days, experts’ sights are set on finding pathways toward a fully renewable national power system. And according to new research published in Joule, the nation could get a long way toward 100% cost-effectively; it is only the final few percent of renewable generation that cause a nonlinear spike in costs to build and operate the power system.
In “Quantifying the Challenge of Reaching a 100% Renewable Energy Power System for the United States,” analysts from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) evaluate possible pathways and quantify the system costs of transitioning to a 100% renewable power grid for the contiguous United States. The research was funded by EERE’s Strategic Analysis Team.
“Our goal was to robustly quantify the cost of a transition to a high-renewable power system in a way that provides electric-sector decision-makers with the information they need to assess the cost and value of pursuing such systems,” said Wesley Cole, NREL senior energy analyst and lead author of the paper.
Expanding on previous work to simulate the evolution of the U.S. power system at unprecedented scale, the authors quantify how various assumptions about how the power system might evolve can impact future system costs. They show how costs can increase nonlinearly for the last few percent toward 100%, which could drive interest in non-electric-sector investments that accomplish similar decarbonization objectives with a lower total tab.
“Our results highlight that getting all the way to 100% renewables is really challenging in terms of costs, but because the challenge is nonlinear, getting close to 100% is much easier,” Cole said. “We also show how innovations such as lower technology costs, or alternate definitions for 100% clean energy such as including nuclear or carbon capture, can lower the cost of reaching the target.”
Advanced Methods Expand Our Understanding of High-Renewable Grids
This work builds on another Joule article released last month exploring the key unresolved technical and economic challenges in achieving a 100% renewable U.S. electricity system. While some aspects of 100% renewable power grids are well established, there is much we do not know. And because 100% renewable grids do not exist at the scale of the entire United States, we rely on models to evaluate and understand possible future systems.
“With increasing reliance on energy storage technologies and variable wind and solar generation, modeling 100% renewable power systems is incredibly complex,” said Paul Denholm, NREL principal energy analyst and coauthor of the paper. “How storage was used yesterday impacts how it can be used today, and while the resolution of our renewable resource data has improved tremendously in recent years, we can’t precisely predict cloudy weather or calm winds.”
Integrated energy pathways modernizes our grid to support a broad selection of generation types, encourages consumer participation, and expands our options for transportation electrification.
Many prior studies have modeled high-renewable electricity systems for a variety of geographies, but not many examine the entire U.S. grid. And even fewer studies attempt to calculate the cost of transitioning to a 100% renewable U.S. grid — instead, they typically present snapshots of systems in a future year without considering the evolution needed to get there. This work expands on these prior studies with several important advances.
First, the team used detailed production cost modeling with unit commitment and economic dispatch to verify the results of the capacity expansion modeling performed with NREL’s publicly available Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) model. The production cost model is Energy Exemplar’s PLEXOS, a commercial model widely used in the utility industry.
“Over the past couple of years we put a tremendous amount of effort into our modeling tools to give us confidence in their ability to capture the challenges inherent in 100% renewable energy power systems,” Cole said. “In addition, we also tried to consider a broad range of future conditions and definitions of the 100% requirement. The combination of these efforts enables us to quantify the cost of a transition to a 100% clean energy system far better than we could in the past.”
The analysis represents the power system with higher spatial and technology resolution than previous studies in order to better capture differences in technology types, renewable energy resource profiles, siting and land-use constraints, and transmission challenges. The analysis also uniquely captures the ability to retrofit existing fossil plants to serve needs under 100% renewable scenarios and assesses whether inertial response can be maintained in these futures.
What Drives System Costs? Transition Speed, Capital Costs, and How We Define 100%
The team simulated a total of 154 different scenarios for achieving up to 100% renewable electricity to determine how the resulting system cost changes under a wide range of future conditions, timeframes, and definitions for 100% — including with systems that allow nonrenewable low-carbon technologies to participate.
“Here we use total cumulative system cost as the primary metric for assessing the challenge of increased renewable deployment for the contiguous U.S. power system,” said Trieu Mai, NREL senior energy analyst and coauthor of the paper. “This system cost is the sum of the cost of building and operating the bulk power system assets out to the year 2050, after accounting for the time value of money.”
To establish a reference case for comparison, the team modeled the system cost at increasing renewable energy deployment for base conditions, which use midrange projections for factors such as capital costs, fuel prices, and electricity demand growth. Under these conditions, the least-cost buildout grows renewable energy from 20% of generation today to 57% in 2050, with average levelized costs of $30 per megawatt-hour (MWh). Imposing a requirement to achieve 100% renewable generation by 2050 under these same conditions raises these costs by 29%, or less than $10 per MWh. System costs increase nonlinearly for the last few percent approaching 100%
Associated with the high renewable energy targets are substantial reductions in direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. From the 57% least-cost scenario, the team translated the changes in system cost and CO2 emissions between scenarios into an average and incremental levelized CO2 abatement cost. The average value is the abatement cost relative to the 57% scenario, while the incremental value is the abatement cost between adjacent scenarios, e.g., between 80% and 90% renewables. In other words, the average value considers all the changes, while the incremental value considers only the change over the most recent increment.
Notably, incremental abatement costs from 99% to 100% reach $930/ton, driven primarily by the need for firm renewable capacity — resources that can provide energy during periods of lower wind and solar generation, extremely high demand, and unplanned events like transmission line outages. In many scenarios, this firm capacity was supplied by renewable-energy-fueled combustion turbines, which could run on biodiesel, synthetic methane, hydrogen, or some other renewable energy resource to support reliable power system operation. The DOE Energy Earthshots Initiative recently announced by Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm includes the Hydrogen Shot, which seeks to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram in one decade — an ambitious effort that could help reduce the cost of providing renewable firm capacity.
“When achieving a 100% renewable system, the costs are significantly lower if there is a cost-effective source of firm capacity that can qualify for the 100% definition,” Denholm said. “The last few percent cannot cost-effectively be satisfied using only wind, solar, and diurnal storage or load flexibility — so other resources that can bridge this gap become particularly important.”
Capital costs are the largest contributor to system costs at 100% renewable energy. Future changes in the capital costs of renewable technologies and storage can thus greatly impact the total system cost of 100% renewable grids. The speed of transition is also an important consideration for both cost and emission impacts. The scenarios with more rapid transitions to 100% renewable power were more costly but had greater cumulative emissions reductions.
“Looking at the low incremental system costs in scenarios that increase renewable generation levels somewhat beyond the reference solutions to 80%–90%, we see considerable low-cost abatement opportunities within the power sector,” Mai said. “The trade-off between power-sector emissions reductions and the associated costs of reducing those emissions should be considered in the context of non-power-sector opportunities to reduce emissions, which might have lower abatement costs — especially at the higher renewable generation levels.”
“The way the requirement is defined is an important aspect of understanding the costs of the requirement and associated emissions reduction,” Cole said. “For instance, if the 100% requirement is defined as a fraction of electricity sales, as it is with current state renewable polices, the cost and emissions of meeting that requirement are similar to those of the scenarios that have requirements of less than 100%.”
Additional Research Can Help the Power Sector Understand the Path Forward
While this work relies on state-of-the-art modeling capabilities, additional research is needed to help fill gaps in our understanding of the technical solutions that could be implemented to achieve higher levels of renewable generation, and their impact on system cost. Future work could focus on key considerations such as the scaling up supply chains, social or environmental factors that could impact real-world deployment, the future role of distributed energy resources, or how increased levels of demand flexibility could reduce costs, to name a few.
“While there is much left to explore, given the energy community’s frequent focus on using the electricity sector as the foundation for economy-wide decarbonization, we believe this work extends our collective understanding of what it might take to get to 100%,” Cole said.
Learn more about NREL’s energy analysis and grid modernization research.
Article courtesy of the NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy
Teledriving mobility service Vay to remotely deliver EVs in Vegas as it expands to US
Europe’s first teledriving (remotely driving) service is entering the US market and intends to setup shop in Sin City to begin. Vay is establishing its new US headquarters in downtown Las Vegas, where it will begin testing its teledriving service by dropping off and picking up rental EVs to customers around the city.
Vay is a German teledriving specialist based in Berlin that has taken a remote-first approach to driverless vehicles in which an operator drives a given EV from a dedicated hub. Vay is aiming to gradually introduce more autonomous driving functions in its system as they become more safe and are permitted to do so.
For now, however, the service relies on teledrivers, whose immediate focus is on the driverless transportation of rental EVs to customers. Those customers can then hop in the EV, drive off and then park whenever they are done, enabling Vay to step back in and remotely drive the vehicle back to base.
After operating a vehicle in Hamburg this past February, Vay declared itself the first and only company to drive a car on European public roads with no one inside. We’ve personally experienced this same approach to rideshare mobility in Las Vegas when we went for a ride with Halo.Car.
With its sights now set on the US, Vay will have to compete with Halo.Car in Vegas – the home of its new headquarters.
Vay to compete in growing driverless EV market in Vegas
Following its plans for expanded certification to operate driverless vehicles in Europe, Vay shared details of its expansion to the US, beginning in Las Vegas. The US entity will be lead by general manager Caleb Varner, who joined Vay in late 2022 after leaving Uber where he was director, global general manager, and co-founder of Uber Rent & Valet. Varner spoke:
I am excited to be a part of Vay and launch our service in the US. Vay’s teledriving technology and innovative approach has the potential to reshape the way people move – not only is that a huge business opportunity, but also a service that we see missing from today’s transportation ecosystem. The broader team at Vay is excited about taking this german-born technology and using it to change the way Americans move and building a future with reduced personal car ownership.
To begin, Varner will work closely with Vay cofounder and CEO Thomas von der Ohe to implement Vay’s teledriving technology in the US market that supports the launch of its own remotely driven mobility service. Von der Ohe also spoke to Vay’s new home in Vegas as a kickoff in the US:
We are excited to enter the US mobility market. Our team is talking to stakeholders in various states and has started to work on launching an initial service. The market is ready and the responses we have received so far from regulators, city governments, and potential customers in the US show that it’s a very dynamic market that we will be exploring in the near future!
Like Europe, the approach will begin with remote deliveries of rental EVs around Vegas, but certain permits and certifications are required. Luckily, Vay has the support of Las Vegas’ International Innovation Center, located in the downtown Arts District. Vay’s new headquarters sits within this office which remains part of an investment in economic development in the city.
I guess I will have to go to Vegas and take a test ride in one of Vay’s driverless cars. Twist my arm!
Here’s where Toyota’s first US-made EV, an electric 3-row SUV, will be built
Toyota’s largest plant globally is going electric. The company revealed Wednesday it would assemble its new three-row electric SUV at its Georgetown, Kentucky, facility starting in 2025. The new SUV will be Toyota’s first US-assembled EV as the market continues to surpass expectations.
Toyota’s first US-assembled EV will be in Kentucky
“Toyota Kentucky set the standard for Toyota vehicle manufacturing in the US and now we’re leading the charge with BEVs,” Susan Elkington, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, explained.
The Toyota Kentucky plant is the company’s largest manufacturing facility globally, with the capability to produce 550,000 vehicles annually, and will now lead Toyota’s vehicle carbon reduction efforts in the US.
Toyota says the batteries for its three-row electric SUV will come from the company’s new battery factory in North Carolina. The plant was initially revealed in late 2021. Today’s announcement from Toyota reveals the plant will receive an additional $2.1 billion investment, bringing the total to nearly $6 billion.
Sean Suggs, president of Toyota Battery Manufacturing at the North Carolina facility, commented on the new funding, saying:
With this proactive infrastructure investment, we will be able to quickly support future expansion opportunities to meet growing customer need.
The NC plant will produce lithium-ion batteries with six production lines (four for hybrids and only two for EVs).
The Governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, said through a $591 million investment for future projects in Scott County, Toyota is committed to retaining 700 full-time jobs.
Although Toyota didn’t reveal any new details of its first US-assembled EV coming in 2025, we know it will be a three-row electric SUV as part of ten new electric cars planned to launch globally.
Toyota aims to sell 1.5 million EVs globally with the new models by 2026 as it looks to keep pace in the rapidly expanding electric car market.
Apart from the company’s first global EV, the bZ4X, Toyota has released an electric sedan, the bZ3, in China and teased upcoming models, including a sport crossover and family SUV.
Since passing last August, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has attracted well over $100 billion in private-sector investment in EVs, batteries, and manufacturing. Toyota is one of many automakers and suppliers that have revealed plans to build on US soil.
That being said, with its first US-assembled EV arriving in 2025, will it still be too little too late for the automaker?
Either way, Toyota is doing what it should have done years ago. It’s building its EV supply chain capabilities with battery factories while retooling manufacturing facilities. In addition, Toyota is developing a dedicated EV platform that will help streamline production and double the range of future electric models with more efficient batteries, according to the company.
With the latest slew of announcements from Toyota, the company is noticeably accelerating the pace of EV development. Perhaps, after watching EV makers like Tesla and BYD steal market share, Toyota is looking toward the future rather than the past.
Former footballer Drogba is E1’s newest team owner ahead of first electric boat racing season
The UIM E1 World Championship electric boat racing league has found its latest team as it prepares to launch its inaugural season later this year. Former Chelsea and Ivory Coast footballer Didier Drogba and his partner Gabrielle LeMaire have signed on as owners of the fourth E1 racing team to join the growing league.
The UIM E1 World Championship is a nascent electric boat racing league created by Formula E and Extreme E founder, Alejandro Agag, and Rodi Basso – a former director of Motorsport at McLaren with a background in Formula 1 engineering.
We’ve been following the new sport’s progress for over a year as it has evolved from testing its all-electric RaceBird boats, to a growing league of teams led by some familiar names. Venice emerged as the inaugural E1 race team in April of 2022, and was soon followed by team Mexico owned by Formula 1 driver Sergio Perez.
Early this year, we shared news that tennis great Rafael Nadal had signed on as E1’s next team owner, bringing his native Spain into the fold to compete on the water. As the young championship series continues to develop (and tries) to fill all ten of its initial team slots this year, it has found its latest team owner in soccer (or football) legend Didier Drogba.
Team Drogba joins E1 donning the Ivory Coast flag
E1 announced the addition of Team Drogba to the UIM Championship this morning, which will be co-owned and managed with the footballer’s partner, Gabrielle LeMaire – a successful businesswoman and marketing expert. E1 cofounder and CEO Rodi Basso spoke about what the new Team Drogba owners bring to the league:
This team is so exciting for the E1 Series, blending diversity, inclusion and sustainability with a fire to compete and win. They are a dynamic duo that show how important it is to have equal representation and opportunities for men and women in motorsport, from the boardroom to the cockpit. And their commitment to ocean health and technological change will help take E1’s message further and wider. It’s exciting to see the fleet take shape and there’s more big announcements in the pipeline.
Similar to his new rival “Rafa” Nadal, Drogba’s foundation supports sustainable developments outside of the competitive arenas to make a positive impact on the planet. The former footballer and his partner also help provide a positive impact on the lives of African children living in poverty.
Together, the new E1 owners hope Team Drogba can help the new E1 series reach a global audience and inspire it to join the race to create a more sustainable world. Drogba spoke to the ownership opportunity and the people that have inspired him:
Sport and sustainability together, it’s a winning combination. Gabrielle and I are both fierce competitors so we’re going to build a strong team. We’re inspired by legends such as Senna and Schumacher, but most especially by Lewis Hamilton, winning F1 championships, breaking barriers and acting as a leader for a new generation of pilots.
Pollution has caused the destruction and loss of coastal habitats around the world. The degradation of our underwater eco-systems poses a series threat to marine life and livelihoods of coastal communities. So we want to have a positive impact through the accelerated development of clean technologies and inspiring change. But we’re also going to have fun for a great cause. Rafa and Checo, get ready! We are coming for you. And we’re here to win!
The inaugural UIM E1 World Championship is scheduled to begin later this year as race
organizers state they will continue to accelerate preparations, promising more teams and confirmed race venues soon. Better hurry.
This is another big get by E1 as it looks to bring as much hype to season 1 as possible… whenever that may be. The original schedule was originally anticipated to begin this past spring, but we still seem to be a ways away as E1 is now saying “late 2023” for a championship series kickoff.
The nascent series now has four teams, but has always hoped to begin racing with at least ten, so it’s going to have to hustle to find more owners quickly to get a viable competition together.
Although I do want to see E1 racing begin sooner rather than later, I don’t mind waiting because I’m genuinely unsure what I’m waiting for, meaning I’m not even sure what to expect in electric boat racing. The prospect of it looks promising, and the adjacent focus on foundations and the environment is a big plus – similar to Formula E. People love a brand with a positive cause.
I’m looking forward to seeing what countries/teams/owners join in next and how well season one goes. I’d very much like to see a competition in person, but E1 has to get there first. I’ll be watching!
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