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Energy experts share how the U.S. can reach Biden's renewable energy goals

Electric power lines are backlit by a sunset. An aircraft can be seen flying in the distance.
AFP via Getty Images
An aircraft takes off from Los Angeles International Airport behind electric power lines at sunset.

The Biden administration plans to eliminate fossil fuels as a form of energy generation in the U.S. by 2035. The White House set out a target of 80% renewable energy generation by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity five years later.

With 79% of total U.S. energy production still coming from fossil fuel sources as of 2021, achieving this goal will require billions of dollars in investments. Last year, investments in America's energy transition hit a new record of $141 billion, according to BloombergNEF.

This trend is expected to continue as the Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August, provides about $370 billion in funding and subsidies for green technologies.

Morning Edition's A Martinez, Leila Fadel and Steve Inskeep asked four energy experts what it would take to make a zero-carbon power grid a reality as part of a broadcast series on America's energy transition.

The four interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Here are some interview highlights

Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy within the Department of Energy.

  1. Nuclear energy could replace nearly 80% of all coal power plants in the US.

What needs to be done? "We definitely have to retire as many unabated fossil sources as possible in order to reach our emissions goals. Our office recently released a report that almost 80% of the coal plants in the U.S. could be replaced by nuclear power plants across a range of sizes, but largely in the range of sizes accommodated by small modular reactors in the couple-of-hundred-megawatts range."

What about safety concerns?

"Nuclear energy has actually saved way more lives than you would think because it is a carbon-free energy source. And fossil fuels are an incredible contributor to premature death. The World Health Organization identified that 1 in 5 deaths are premature due directly to fossil fuel burning. And by being a huge contributor to reducing carbon emissions, nuclear power has saved a ton of lives. If you normalize by the number of terawatt hours generated, nuclear power is among the safest energy sources available, including wind and solar, which cause more deaths per terawatt hour generated."

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Amy Robertson, systems engineer specializing in the modeling of offshore wind system dynamics at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

  1. Massive offshore wind turbines can produce more power on a smaller footprint.

A wind turbine with three blades is standing in the Atlantic Ocean.
John Moore / Getty Images
Getty Images
A wind turbine generates electricity at the Block Island Wind Farm near Block Island, Rhode Island. The first commercial offshore wind farm in the United States is located 3.8 miles from Block Island, Rhode Island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Why offshore wind in the first place?

"The truth is that in order to solve this climate crisis, in order to decarbonize our energy infrastructure, we're going to need not just one or two renewable energy sources. We're going to need a whole portfolio."

"We're able to actually build much bigger offshore wind turbines than we can on land because the whole ability to transport large components through our highways and trains, it's just not feasible on land, but offshore, we have much more freedom. We don't have those restrictions. So we can actually build more massive wind turbines, which growing the size of the wind turbine can actually really help with the economy of that wind turbine."

Why has it taken so long to invest in offshore wind?

"I guess there's really several reasons it's been taking a while. I think first, historically, offshore wind has been rather costly compared to other renewable energy sources, but we have been seeing the costs coming down. Since about 2015, the price of offshore wind has really been reduced. And so we're starting to see a lot of interest in the U.S., especially at the state level, where they can see that offshore wind can really bring good economic value to their local regions."

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Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative and a fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

  1. Oil and gas companies must look beyond fossil fuels to remain in business.

A pump jack operating in an oil field in a desert-like terrain.
Tony Gutierrez / AP
A view of a pump jack operating in an oil field in Midland, Texas. A U.N.-backed study has found that the world needs to cut by more than half its production of coal, oil and gas in the coming decade to maintain a chance of keeping global warming from reaching dangerous levels.

How can the U.S. oil and gas industry adapt to a zero-carbon future?

"The U.S. oil and gas companies understand that a low-carbon future is the direction that we're going. However, we also have the issue that we have to feed the energy system that we have today. So those oil and gas companies are in a bit of a pickle. There's still demand for their product today, although they know the world is changing. And so that makes for a really challenging business environment for them."

"Some of the big European oil and gas companies shifting to being energy companies and focusing on some of the things that they do well that correspond to a fossil fuel-free world - for instance, oil and gas companies focusing on offshore wind because they're good at operating in the offshore. The question is how quickly those companies adapt. If they don't, they may not make it."

On why fossil fuels are hard to quit

Because they're incredibly useful. We started using them, and they really just opened up new avenues to mankind, gave us so much more energy to power our economy than we'd ever had before. And now we're trying to move away from them because we understand the environmental climate impacts that they have. But they're deeply embedded into our economy. Everything we do every day is based on fossil fuels. So the world has never tried to move away from something so embedded in its economy so quickly. But now that we understand the danger that fossil fuels pose, that's what we need to do.

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George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and a senior scientist and distinguished fellow at Argonne National Laboratory.

  1. Long-term energy storage is key for a carbon-free power grid of the future.

Several rows of cabinets containing lithium ion batteries.
/ AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Rows of cabinets containing lithium ion batteries supplied by Fluence, a Siemens and AES Company, are seen inside the AES Alamitos Battery Energy Storage System, which provides stored renewable energy to supply electricity during peak demand periods, in Long Beach, California.

More on the the importance of energy storage

The lithium-ion batteries that we have now can discharge at full power for about four hours. And that's great for intraday needs - passing clouds, gusty winds - even for extending, let's say, solar power past sunset by a few hours, and that's when there's a huge demand peak. But it cannot do, let's say, consecutive days that are overcast or that are calm. So you need a different battery for that. That's one of the technological breakthroughs that we're looking for, often called long-duration storage.

But how will it allow the U.S. to get to 100% renewable energy?

"Experts say that we could probably convert the grid 80% to renewable - that's wind and solar - without having to deal with this long-duration storage problem. We'd still use gas peaker plants for that. But that would only be for 20% of the electricity that we need. If you want to do the other 20%, you're going to have to solve that problem of storage, you know, long-term storage for the grid, days in a row. And you could do that with gravity storage. [sic] You could have hydrogen or ammonia or another chemical energy medium which is yet to be discovered. That's the challenge. We can get to 80%, but we can't get to 100%."

The four interviews were produced by Shelby Hawkins, Taylor Haney, Lilly Quiroz, David West and Claire Murashima. The digital version was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.