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Here’s something to ponder: What will America’s energy landscape look like in 2050? Some are calling for a “deep electrification” of the U.S. economy, including the widespread deployment of electric vehicles and heat pumps.
But the combination of EVs with a growing number of data centers and other digital infrastructure could mean a large spike in future energy demands. The question then is what set of solutions will best meet this need, particularly as more solar and wind power comes online?
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America’s electricity demands over the next 30 years will undoubtedly be significant. The Department of Energy believes that a large-scale shift to EVs and other deep electrification projects could potentially drive a 38 percent increase in U.S. electricity needs by 2050. And the International Energy Agency is already projecting as many as 40 million to 70 million electric cars on the world’s roads by 2025.
The most immediate issue will be to ensure sufficient baseload electricity.
Right now, Americans use nearly 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. Half of it comes from coal and nuclear. Another 32 percent comes from natural gas. And 7.6 percent comes from wind and solar.
One factor to consider is that wind and solar power have built-in limitations — since the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. In fact, the most advanced wind turbines only reach their rated capacity 42.5 percent of the time, and the most high-tech, motorized solar panels achieve their rated output roughly 26 percent of the time. In order to make wind and solar power work, they require on-demand backup support from natural gas, coal or nuclear power plants.
So, no matter how we slice it, we’re still going to need a tremendous amount of reliable, baseload power generation — especially if we want to accommodate the arrival of electric cars.
One option is natural gas. But as this season’s price hikes have shown, natural gas remains a volatile commodity. And recent gas shortages in Rhode Island during a winter cold snap prompted Gov. Gina Raimondo to declare a state of emergency — a reminder that heavy demand can pose real challenges for America’s sprawling gas pipeline networks.
So, how do we successfully reach a scenario in 2050 of lower emissions and a more advanced energy infrastructure? The safest approach would be an all-of-the-above strategy that combines coal, natural gas and nuclear power with wind and solar to continue reliably churning out trillions of kilowatt-hours each year for homes, schools, businesses and hospitals.
The good news is that, when it comes to coal-generated electricity, more advanced technologies are coming online. Japan, Western Europe and China are leading the way in the adoption of high-efficiency, low-emissions systems that burn coal more efficiently and with lower emissions. Since the United States possesses abundant supplies of coal, it seems logical to pursue these HELE technologies in the coming years.
HELE systems could be game-changing because they can ramp up the efficiency of coal-fired power plants from the typical 33 percent to a more optimum 40 percent. It’s estimated that a 1 percentage point improvement in the efficiency of a standard coal plant results in a 2-3 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. By that measure, HELE systems could cut U.S. coal-plant emissions by up to 21 percent.
These HELE plants could help to meet continued baseload electricity needs while also achieving lower emissions targets. And that would help to cover both wind and solar arrays plus the robust additional demands of electric vehicles.
It looks like the American people already favor such an approach. A full 67 percent of voters in a recent poll supported an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and 81 percent supported a diverse energy mix to preserve affordable and reliable electricity costs. In fact, 67 percent of voters want to prioritize investment in HELE technologies.
America runs on secure, reliable electricity. As new technologies come online, they should be included in efforts to reach a balanced energy mix. That sort of forward thinking could help the nation achieve its goal of an advanced energy future by 2050.
Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission, and he contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.
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