Estimating Renewable Energy Economic Potential in the United States: Methodology and Initial Results

Austin Brown, Philipp Beiter, Donna Heimiller, Paul Denholm, Carolyn Davidson, Jennifer Melius, Anthony Lopez, Dylan Hettinger

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


This report describes a geospatial analysis method to estimate the economic potential of several renewable resources available for electricity generation in the United States. Economic potential, one measure of renewable generation potential, may be defined in several ways. For example, one definition might be expected revenues (based on local market prices) minus generation costs, considered over the expected lifetime of the generation asset. Another definition might be generation costs relative to a benchmark (e.g., a natural gas combined cycle plant) using assumptions of fuel prices, capital cost, and plant efficiency. Economic potential in this report is defined as the subset of the available resource technical potential where the cost required to generate the electricity (which determines the minimum revenue requirements for development of the resource) is below the revenue available in terms of displaced energy and displaced capacity. The assessment is conducted at a high geospatial resolution (more than 150,000 technology-specific sites in the continental United States) to capture the significant variation in local resource, costs, and revenue potential. This metric can be a useful screening factor for understanding the economic viability of renewable generation technologies at a specific location. In contrast to many common estimates of renewable energy potential, economic potential does not consider market dynamics, customer demand, or most policy drivers that may incent renewable energy generation. The method is applied to several renewable generation technologies under a variety of assumptions--including land-based wind, utility photovoltaics (UPV), distributed photovoltaics (DPV), hydropower, geothermal (hydrothermal resource only), and biopower (dedicated combustion plants only, not including co-firing), primarily from a 2014 perspective.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages154
StatePublished - 2016

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-64503


  • economics
  • geothermal
  • potential
  • RE
  • renewable
  • solar
  • wind


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