Electric Grid Could Meet Renewable Energy Goals

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The nation's electricity network can support wind and solar power expansion.

Grid operators have long claimed that the nation's aging electricity network cannot support the enormous expansion of wind and solar power planned by the Obama administration. Now, a new government report says otherwise.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a division of the Department of Energy, it is "operationally feasible" for the power grid to accommodate 30% wind and 5% solar energy in western states as early as 2017.

Perhaps even more impressive is that as much as 20% power could come from renewable resources without any new long-distance transmission lines.

That conclusion, from NREL's "Western Wind and Solar Integration Study" stands in sharp contrast to previous studies indicating a need for thousands of miles of costly new transmission lines to achieve such penetration of renewables.

NREL examined three separate scenarios for how wind and solar power might be incorporated into a Western transmission network called "WestConnect." One scenario is an "in-area concept," where no interstate transmission is required, and wind and solar power within each state meet national renewable energy goals. Another, the "local-priority scenario," would require some new long-distance transmission but priority is given to local resources. And lastly, a "mega-project scenario" would build up the windiest sites in America largely in Wyoming and construct transmission lines required to move that power off the high plains and into other states.

In the end, the local-priority concept, involving a mix of long-distance and locally sourced renewable energy, had a slightly lower price tag of $80.1 billion compared to $81.9 billion and $83.1 billion for the mega project and in-area scenarios, respectively.

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