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Energy in the future

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

The brightest group I know in the energy business – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory ( – is in Golden, Colo.

I identify them as “brightest” of course, because our daughter, Elaine, happens to be a senior research engineer there. If you know me at all, you know while I am proud of her, my boasting is tongue-in-cheek.

Since solar panels seem to be coming to Highland County, I thought this appropriate. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) had an end-of-year seminar on the future of energy generation in the United States from 2020-50, which is the source of the data here (see

NREL has some qualifications on these findings.

First, these are simulations based on certain base criteria. They are not predictions in the strictest sense of the word.

Second, these figures I am quoting are for generation capacity that could potentially go into the U.S. grid. These do not include privately operated generation systems (such as at a pulp and paper mill).

Third, and to reiterate, these are capacities, no representation is made as to how much electricity will actually be produced.

So, I think the best way to present this data is in a table (see the attached graphic). The data is in Gigawatts (GW).

This gives some interesting results. Natural Gas will continue to be the number-one source in 2050, according to this model. Jumping to number two will be utility scale photovoltaics (as are proposed for Highland County). Coal is still a significant factor. But it is declining significantly.

There are two sets of assumptions driving this model: Energy policy and economics.

Photovoltaics, for instance, are experiencing a rapid drop in costs, much like all electronics do and it is reflected in their growth.

So, the dream of continuing a coal economy looks like it is just that – a dream. The economics of solar panels, wind turbines and so forth are going to be the drivers in the future, after a long and slow start. It was just announced in a New York Times story on Jan. 1 that General Electric is introducing a new wind turbine of a size never seen before. It will stand 853 feet tall and have blades of 722 feet in diameter. This one will produce enough power for a town of 12,000. Further evidence the economics is changing to favor renewables.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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