New MIT study shows interregional transmission networks will lower decarbonization costs as opposed to the region-by-region grid system expansion

A recently released study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that a nationwide, interconnected grid network could lower the costs of zeroing out carbon emissions per US targets by 2040. As stated in an interview, the researchers think forcing each region to expand their grid system is uneconomical since regions differ in weather systems and geography. However, if grid systems are interconnected, regions with better solar and wind potential would augment the shortages in other cloudy and calm regions. This would reduce the overall costs of providing sustainable renewable energy without overstretching the country’s finances.

If this study was actualized, wind and solar plants would be concentrated in the windiest and sunniest states to maximize the technology. Enough energy would be produced and shared across different parts, without over-building renewable energy infrastructure in less sunny and windy regions.

“It has a huge impact,” said Patrick Brown, MIT researcher behind the study. “The costs are relatively small, and it delivers oversize benefits.” “We don’t want the whole decarbonization plan to be riding on something like that. It is important to consider the contingency options with technology we can deploy at scale now,” added Brown.

For instance, developing high-voltage -direct links between Eastern, Western, and Texas macro grids could cut electricity costs to $70 per megawatt-hour. “The differences in costs add up to big numbers over the course of the next two decades. Each $10 per megawatt-hour in savings equates to roughly $44 billion per year by 2020,” explained Brown.

Audun Botterud, a principal research scientist at MIT, said, “If you want to go to zero-carbon, there is a very steep additional cost, to go from, say, 90 percent decarbonization to 100 percent. But when you allow for transmission coordination across the country, the cost of going to zero is much lower.”

Another advisor on the study, Johannes Pfeifenberger, who is also the head of The Brattle Group, an energy consultancy firm, echoed the same thoughts. “Over the past 10years, there have been a dozen, maybe two dozen studies showing that if a higher share of renewable generation is the objective, then a more robust regional and interregional transmission grid is the most cost-effective solution,” Pfeifenberger said.

“Patrick’s study shows that even with low-cost storage and renewable resources now available, implementing clean energy policies on a national scale, rather than state by state or region by region, is quite compelling in its ability to reduce the total cost of supplying electricity,” he added. Previous studies have shown that for the US to achieve a zero-emission target by mid-century, investing in transmission expansion will be necessary. A study by Princeton University, released in December 2020, estimated a $2.5 trillion investment into the grid network is required to meet decarbonization targets.

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