Renewable energy will overtake natural gas as the nation’s largest source of electricity by 2050, according to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook, released Jan. 29.
EIA forecasts that renewables will account for 38% of electricity in 2050, up from 19% today, while natural gas will account for 37% of electricity, compared with 36% for today. Nuclear and coal will fall to 12% and 13%, respectively. Linda Capuano, administrator of EIA, also noted that in 2019, the U.S. became a net exporter of energy with exports of crude oil, liquefied natural gas and petroleum products, a trend that will continue through 2050, according to EIA.
In the report, EIA says although the growth of renewables is currently driven by state and federal policies, such as tax credits, declining costs will continue to make renewables economically competitive even as those policies expire.
The largest source of renewable generation will come from solar energy, accounting for 46% of renewable power by 2050, compared with wind, which will provide 33% by that time.
After the release of the report at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a panel of industry officials agreed with the assessment, noting that already it’s cheaper for utilities to retire older coal and natural gas plants and replace them with renewable energy. “It actually saves our customers money,” said Karen Hyde, vice president, chief risk officer and chief audit executive at Xcel Energy. Xcel has promised to reduce its carbon emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2030. The technology already exists for that to occur, she said.
Southern Company has also committed to reducing its emissions levels 50% below 2007 levels by 2030. “It’s a path we can see straightforward through 2030,” said Charles Rossmann, economist at the Southern Company.
However, both Hyde and Rossmann said reaching the utilities’ bigger targets of zero carbon emissions by 2050 is not so easy because the technology doesn’t currently exist to store and distribute so much renewable generation.
Larger batteries with more storage are needed, among other things, Rossmann said.
Technology is needed for those tail-end goals. “I think about it all the time,” Hyde says.
Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, kicked off the discussion saying that energy and climate is one of the few issues that both Republicans and Democrats are working together on. “We’ve shifted from a pretty unproductive discussion over the existence of the problem, to what will become a very productive battle over the solutions.”