Quantifying the Challenge of Reaching a 100% Renewable Energy Power System for the United States

Wesley Cole, Danny Greer, Paul Denholm, A. Frazier, Scott Machen, Trieu Mai, Nina Vincent, Samuel Baldwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus Citations


We simulate pathways for achieving up to 100% renewable energy (RE) electric power systems for the contiguous United States. Under base conditions, the least-cost buildout has RE penetration growing up to 57% in 2050. Relative to this base scenario, average CO2 abatement costs of achieving 80%, 90%, 95%, and 100% RE are $25, $33, $40, and $61/ton, respectively, with system costs growing from $30 to $36/MWh at 95% (achieved in 2040) and $39/MWh at 100%. Incremental abatement costs from 99% to 100% RE reach $930/ton, driven primarily by the need for firm RE capacity. In addition to the base conditions, we also examined 22 alternative conditions for a buildout of up to 100%. These sensitivities capture different technology trajectories, compliance requirements, requirement timing, electrification, and transmission availability. Nonlinear marginal costs for the last few percent approaching 100% RE were found for all sensitivities, which might motivate alternative nonelectric-sector abatement opportunities.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1732-1748
Number of pages17
Issue number7
StatePublished - 21 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5C00-80629


  • energy cost
  • energy policy
  • energy system modeling
  • grid integration
  • renewable energy


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