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The Understand Energy Learning Hub is a cross-campus effort of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

A Decarbonized Electric Power Sector

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Fast Facts About
A Decarbonized Electric Power Sector

Electricity generation is responsible for 32% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and electricity demand is growing. Decarbonizing the electric power sector is critical to meeting the growing demand while simultaneously reducing overall carbon emissions.

Integrating more renewable resources is a key component for decarbonizing the electric power sector. Since electricity supply and demand must be balanced in real time, this poses challenges due to the variability of renewable resources such as wind and solar. There are a variety of tools available to help integrate renewable energy into electricity systems:

  1. Storage - Can charge when renewable generation exceeds load and discharge when load exceeds wind and solar generation
  2. Flexible Loads - Move loads, such as EV charging, hot water heating, or others to periods of high renewable production. Increases utilization of renewables and decreases the use of fossil fuels and the need for storage
  3. Overbuild - Build excess renewable generation to meet demand even during periods of low renewable production. Decreases utilization of natural gas but has land use and economic implications
  4. Regional Integration - Integrate geographically different regions to reduce wind and solar generation variability, curtailment, and utilization of natural gas

For more information about electricity, visit our Electricity Generation and The Grid: Electricity Transmission, Industry, and Markets pages.


Electricity GHG Emissions Intensity

World

520 tons of GHG emissions per MWh generated
⬇7% decrease (2016-2021)

U.S.

385 tons of GHG emissions per MWh generated
⬇16% decrease (2016-2021)

Electricity GHG emissions intensity has decreased as the share of cleaner resources has increased


Renewables Integration in Electricity Generation

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Countries With the Highest Integration of Non-Hydro Renewables

Denmark 78%
Lithuania 61%
Kenya 58%
of electricity generation comes from non-hydro renewable sources

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U.S. States With the Highest Integration of Non-Hydro Renewables

Iowa 64%
South Dakota 55%
Vermont 52%
of electricity generation comes from non-hydro renewable sources

In the U.S., 15% of electricity generation comes from non-hydro renewable sources


Drivers

  • Global commitments to reduce GHG emissions
  • Increase in electrification to replace fossil fuels
  • Technological advances in renewable generation and energy storage
  • Increasing cost competitiveness of renewable generation
  • Distributed generation (e.g. residential rooftop solar panels) can give users more help manage growing demand and increase low-carbon generation

Barriers

  • Variability of renewable energy sources, demand must match supply in real time
  • Need to invest in modernization of old, outdated grid infrastructure to accommodate renewables and growing demand
  • Need to update utility business models to account for distributed energy resources
  • Difficulties to recover costs fairly as the electricity sector moves away from fossil fuels
  • Land use impacts of additional renewable facilities, especially if overbuilding
  • Technical and political barriers to regional integration of the electric grid

Updated June 2023

Before You Watch Our Lecture on
A Decarbonized Electric Power Sector

We assign videos and readings to our Stanford students as pre-work for each lecture to help contextualize the lecture content. We strongly encourage you to review the Essential videos and readings below before watching our lecture on A Decarbonized Electric Power Sector. Include selections from the Optional and Useful list based on your interests and available time.

Essential

  • Can Green Energy Make the Grid Safer?. PBS Terra. March 28, 2023. (13 min)
    Experts weigh in on whether we can achieve the clean energy transition in time and if our power grid will be able to handle it given how extreme our weather is getting due to climate change.
  • How Do Electric Utilities Make Money?. Advanced Energy Perspectives. April 23, 2015. (2 pages)
    A good overview of how electric utilities currently make money.

Optional and Useful

Our Lecture on
A Decarbonized Electric Power Sector

This is our Stanford University Understand Energy course lecture on decarbonizing the electric power sector. We strongly encourage you to watch the full lecture to understand the importance of grid decarbonization and how it can be accomplished. For a complete learning experience, we also encourage you to watch / read the Essential videos and readings we assign to our students before watching the lecture.

Zach Ming

Presented by: Zach Ming, Adjunct Lecturer, Atmosphere and Energy, Stanford University; Director, Energy & Environmental Economics
Recorded on: April 26, 2023  Duration: 65 minutes

Table of Contents

(Clicking on a link will take you to YouTube.)
00:00 Introduction
2:59 A Changing Industry
4:56 Decarbonization
40:25 Electrification
47:00 Retail Rate Design
54:38 Distributed Energy Resources
1:01:02 Utility Business Model

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Additional Resources About
A Decarbonized Electric Power Sector

Stanford University

Government and International Organizations

Other Resources