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Pioneering NREL Analysis Empowers Los Angeles in Its Pursuit of 100% Renewables

Results from the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study (LA100) show meeting LA's goal of reliable, 100% renewable electricity by 2045—or even 2035—is achievable and will entail rapid deployment of wind, solar, and storage technologies this decade. The study paves the way for other jurisdictions to reach their own clean energy goals, equitably and economically.

 

March 24, 2021

Los Angeles is a famously sprawling metropolis, spanning from the sparkling Pacific Ocean on its west to the rugged San Gabriel and Santa Ana mountains and San Joaquin Hills on its east.

LA's power system is equally expansive: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is the nation's largest municipal utility, serving more than 4 million residents over 465 square miles, with more than 3,600 miles of transmission lines to move electricity into the city and more than 10,400 miles of distribution lines to deliver power to customers.

LADWP's footprint extends beyond the city itself, with transmission lines stretching across much of the western United States to tap into valuable energy resources in the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, and Desert Southwest.

And, like many other coastal cities in the United States—and much of the surrounding Golden State—Los Angeles and its power grid sit on the front lines of climate change, with wildfires, droughts, and heat waves intensifying as our planet warms.

To find equitable and economic local solutions to the climate crisis, the City of Los Angeles has set ambitious goals to transform LA's electricity supply, aiming for a 100% renewable energy power system by 2045, along with a push to electrify the buildings and transportation sectors.

Over the course of 2016 and 2017, the Los Angeles City Council passed a series of motions directing LADWP to develop and implement research partnerships with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), local universities, and stakeholders to study the feasibility and investment pathways of reaching these goals, along with implications for jobs, electricity rates, the environment, and environmental justice. The charge led them to the experts at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Ambitious Clean-Energy Goals Require Ambitious Analysis

Even in LA's sunny sprawl, achieving a 100% renewable power supply is not as simple as building lots of solar panels. LADWP's power system is unique, so navigating possible paths forward presented an analytical undertaking of unprecedented scale and complexity.

So, in 2017, LADWP sought out NREL—the nation's only federal laboratory dedicated to renewable energy research, with a bold vision for transforming the energy system through science—to lead LA100: the Los Angeles 100% Renewable Energy Study.

"LA100 is one of NREL’s most momentous achievements in fulfilling our mission to transfer knowledge and innovations to address the nation's energy and environmental goals," said NREL Director Dr. Martin Keller. "The study offers invaluable insight into how the United States can achieve national-scale goals for a 100% carbon-free power sector."

"LA100 is a first-of-its-kind objective, rigorous, highly detailed, and science-based study to analyze potential pathways the LA community can take to achieve a 100% clean energy future," said Dr. Jaquelin Cochran, manager of NREL's grid systems analysis group and principal investigator of the LA100 study. "It taps into and builds on NREL's decades of experience studying high-renewable power systems at a variety of scales, from our foundational Renewable Electricity Futures Study to the Eastern Renewable Generation Integration Study, and beyond—while leveraging input from a diverse set of stakeholders."

Modeling Power Systems in Unprecedented Detail

NREL offered uniquely technology-neutral, holistic, and best-in-class capabilities to help Los Angeles navigate its clean energy transition—and joined forces with partners from the University of Southern California, Colorado State University, and Kearns & West to tap into additional expertise.

Over the past three years, a multidisciplinary team of dozens of NREL experts ran more than 100 million simulations at ultrahigh spatial and temporal resolution to evaluate a range of future scenarios for how LADWP's power system could evolve to a 100% renewable future—while maintaining reliable power for LA customers.

Leveraging the power of NREL's Eagle supercomputer, LA100 tapped into diverse capabilities across NREL's research programs, including detailed electricity demand modeling, power system investments and operations analysis, economic impact analysis, distribution grid modeling, and life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions analysis, among others.

There is no single model that can perform all the analysis required for the LA100 study's large temporal, geographic, and sectoral scope. NREL analysts developed a new approach, with multiple steps and feedback loops—and more than a dozen individual tools or models of various types, including NREL's Distributed Generation Market Demand model, Resource Planning Model, and Renewable Energy Potential geospatial modeling tool.

"We had to push our existing tool sets to new levels of sophistication, as there has never been a 100% renewable energy study of a U.S. utility system the size of LADWP that considers all of these elements," said Dr. Paul Denholm, NREL principal analyst and technical lead for the LA100 study.

The results illuminate possible pathways to achieve a 100% renewable electricity supply while electrifying buildings and vehicles—and, importantly, maintaining LADWP's current high degree of reliability.

"Keeping the lights on was a foundational part of this study, as we recognize the critical role of a reliable power grid, especially in a future with more electrified consumer products, like cars," Denholm said. "A 100% renewable grid cannot compromise on reliability—particularly when electricity is playing a greater role in heating, cooking, and transportation. So our study uniquely examined the impact of climate change on demand for electricity, and the vulnerability of the grid to increased occurrence of climate-change-driven natural disasters that might shut down parts of the transmission networks."

Results also highlight economic and environmental impacts and show opportunities for disadvantaged communities to be a part of the solution. This map does not show results but highlights that approximately half of LA's census tracts are designated as disadvantaged communities.

"The study provides a deeper understanding of the challenges and trade-offs in achieving a 100% renewable power grid, as opposed to identifying specific costs, technologies, or project sites," Cochran said. "We know that a renewable grid can be a reliable grid, and that science can equip the community to make informed decisions about which pathways to a renewable, reliable grid best reflect their values."

And LA100 was not just about running models and analyzing data.

Every step of the research was guided by the LA100 Advisory Group, which was established in 2017 to help inform the study's scope and ensure it answered the questions that matter most to the community. The Advisory Group comprised local neighborhood councils, industry, key customers, academia, city government, and more—so it reflected the distinct perspectives and feedback necessary for an economic and equitable local energy transition in LA. Quarterly meetings with the Advisory Group tailored the research to constituents' needs and concerns—pioneering a more holistic approach to energy analysis that centers the community in the conversation.

Possible Pathways to 100%: The LA100 Scenarios

NREL worked with the LA100 Advisory Group to frame the sets of questions addressed in the study, including:

  • As more Angelenos adopt energy technologies like electric vehicles and air conditioning, how might that change total demand for electricity throughout LA?
  • What could LA's future grid look like? Does reaching 100% mean big changes locally—like building new transmission lines or power plants?
  • How can LA make sure that the new system is reliable under extreme events like fires and heat waves?
  • What about impacts on jobs, the local economy, air quality, public health, and environmental justice?
  • And what might all of this cost?

"To help address these questions, we design scenarios that help us explore different options for how LA might achieve its clean energy future," Denholm said. "Each scenario has the same end goal—100% renewable energy—but how the goal is achieved varies across the scenarios."

The scenarios vary in terms of the speed of the energy transition—whether LA reaches its clean energy target in 2045 per the City Council motions, or a decade sooner—along with different assumptions about the definition of 100% renewable energy, which technologies can be used, how many customers adopt rooftop solar systems, and LADWP's ability to build new transmission lines.

SB100

Evaluated under Moderate, High, and Stress Load Electrification

  • 100% clean energy by 2045
  • Only scenario with a target based on retail sales, not generation
  • Only scenario that allows up to 10% of the target to be natural gas offset by renewable electricity credits
  • Allows existing nuclear and upgrades to transmission

Early & No Biofuels

Evaluated under Moderate and High Load Electrification

  • 100% clean energy by 2035, 10 years sooner than other scenarios
  • No natural gas generation or biofuels
  • Allows existing nuclear and upgrades to transmission

Limited New Transmission

Evaluated under Moderate and High Load Electrification

  • 100% clean energy by 2045
  • Only scenario that does not allow upgrades to transmission beyond currently planned projects
  • No natural gas or nuclear generation

Transmission Focus

Evaluated under Moderate and High Load Electrification

  • 100% clean energy by 2045
  • Only scenario that builds new transmission corridors
  • No natural gas or nuclear generation

Projections for future customer electricity demand—moderate, high, and stress—were applied to the scenarios to help evaluate how customer choices influence the evolution of the power system. For example, how could LA's overall demand for electricity change if customers make their windows more efficient, switch to electric appliances, or buy electric cars?

Three possible futures for customer electricity demand

Moderate energy efficiency, electrification, and demand flexibility, e.g.:

  • 30% of passenger cars on the road in 2045 are plug-in electric
  • Residential building equipment and appliance sales are distributed across all efficiency levels
  • 80% of new and retrofit equipment is 5 years ahead of California's Title 24 commercial building energy-efficiency code minimum
  • 75% of residents have access to residential charging; 25% access to workplace charging

High energy efficiency, electrification, and demand flexibility, e.g.:

  • Appliances, heating within buildings switch from natural gas to electric
  • Residential building equipment and appliance sales are at the highest efficiency available
  • 80% of passenger cars on the road in 2045 are plug-in electric
  • 60% of residents have access to residential charging; 50% access to workplace charging to encourage more daytime charging
  • Demand is more flexible in its timing

Stress grid conditions—high electrification but low energy efficiency and demand flexibility

  • All the electrification of High
  • But timing of demand is not aligned with renewable generation
  • Energy efficiency adoption is lower than Moderate (matches LADWP's 2017 Strategic Long-Term Resource Plan 10-year efficiency goals)
  • 90% of residents have access to residential charging; 15% access to workplace charging to restrict daytime charging

"It's important to remember that scenarios are not prescriptions or predictions—LADWP will not choose one scenario as its marching orders," Cochran said. "Instead, the scenarios help illuminate how making different decisions could impact LA's future in a variety of ways—from costs, to environmental concerns, to the local economy."

What NREL Found

Looking across the study scenarios, the LA100 analysis reveals key insights about what a high-renewable-energy future could look like in LA—and beyond.

  1. On the road to achieving 100% renewables by 2045, all LA100 scenarios include significant deployment of renewable and zero-carbon energy by 2035, accounting for 84%–100% of energy and a decline of 76%–100% GHG emissions from power plant operations in 2035 compared to 2020, depending on the scenario. Each of the scenarios builds new wind, solar, batteries, and transmission, coupled with operational practices that make more efficient use of these investments.

  2. By 2045, electricity demand (both annual consumption and peak demand) is likely to grow. High levels of energy efficiency can offset this growth in the buildings sector due to a hotter climate, population growth, and electrification. It is the electrification of the transportation sector that primarily propels overall growth in electricity demand.

  3. Also by 2045, with the incentives evaluated in the study, customers are likely to drive significant growth in rooftop solar: 3,000–4,000 megawatts (MW), including up to a third of customers in existing single-family homes. LADWP might also deploy an additional 300–1,000 MW of non-rooftop solar in the Los Angeles Basin. The distribution grid can manage this growth in local solar—along with the projected growth in electricity demand. While almost all parts of the distribution grid will need some upgrades, the LA100 study estimates that, after correcting deferred maintenance on the existing system, a modest number of equipment upgrades would be sufficient to manage growth in demand and local solar. These distribution upgrade costs represent a small fraction of the total cost of the clean energy transition.

  4. Electrification of vehicles and buildings leads to substantial improvements in air quality and associated benefits to public health—widespread across both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged communities. LA100's results indicate that realizing these health benefits is principally a matter of achieving high energy efficiency and electrification, independent of any particular renewable energy pathway for the power sector.

  5. Also regardless of the pathway, economic impacts to the city of the 100% renewable energy transition are projected to be small relative to the overall size of LA's economy—so while the transition could create thousands of clean energy jobs annually, the clean energy investments alone are not anticipated to notably impact LA’s economy overall.

Overall, the LA100 analysis reveals that while achieving a reliable, 100% clean energy future is a significant undertaking requiring substantial investments, there are multiple pathways to get there—and LA can get started now.

Diving deeper, the LA100 modeling results show several key trends across all the scenarios studied.

  • Wind and solar resources—enabled by storage—are fundamental to providing the majority of energy required to meet future load: 69%–87% depending on the scenario.
  • New renewable "firm" capacity built in the Los Angeles Basin—resources that use renewably produced and storable fuels, can come online within minutes, and can run for hours to days—will become a key element of maintaining reliability.
  • Decarbonizing the power sector through renewable deployment helps create the enabling conditions for decarbonization of the buildings and transportation sectors through electrification. While the power sector itself contributes few non-GHG air pollutant emissions in a 100% renewable future, the electrification of combustion sources in other sectors enables more significant emissions reductions, and thus improved health for Los Angeles residents.
  • Regardless of the pathway, economic impacts to the city from changes in electricity rates and renewable energy investments are projected to be small relative to the overall size of LA's economy. So, while the transition to 100% renewables could create thousands of clean energy jobs annually, overall, the clean energy investments alone are not anticipated to notably impact the local economy.
  • Disadvantaged communities (as defined in the study) could expect to see many benefits in a clean energy transition, including reduced local and regional air pollution, improved indoor air quality from electrification, reduced vulnerability to climate change, and improved health outcomes.

  • Ensuring prioritization of disadvantaged communities, however, is not an inevitable result of the power-system transition. A just, equitable clean-energy future would require intentionally designed decision-making processes and policies/programs that prioritize these communities.

  • On the customer side, the study shows significant benefits from electrification in terms of improving GHG emissions, air quality, and public health, and emphasizes the critical role of customer demand flexibility to reduce per-unit electricity costs and contribute to reliability.

  • When it comes to the LADWP power system, the no-regrets options include new wind, solar, batteries, and transmission—deployed in or out of the Los Angeles Basin, and coupled with smart-grid operational practices that make more efficient use of these investments. LADWP can also address existing distribution maintenance needs to enable changes on the customer side.

The analysis also revealed several differences between the scenarios in terms of potential costs and benefits.

  • Renewable capacity that is built in the Los Angeles Basin and can come online within minutes and run for days serves a critical role: it provides energy during periods of lower wind and solar generation, extremely high demand, and unplanned events like transmission line outages.

  • Today, the cheapest option for this type of peaking capacity is a storable renewable fuel used in a combustion turbine. Biofuels are commercially available today and could serve as a transition fuel until commercially available, electricity-derived fuels become more widespread.

  • If the City of LA does not want to use biofuels, LADWP can produce its own clean fuel in the form of hydrogen (produced from renewable electricity).

  • This option is not yet commercially available at scale, so building the necessary infrastructure could represent a significant portion of total costs associated with the clean energy transition.

  • While LA100 does not represent a complete analysis of tradeoffs, the benefits as measured within the study are significant. For example, comparing a scenario with moderate and high electrification levels, while the high electrification version has higher total costs, it offers lower per-unit costs, higher GHG and air pollutant emissions reductions, and higher public health benefits.
  • All else equal, an earlier target year means LADWP must make the necessary investments to achieve 100% renewable electricity more quickly. This results in earlier accumulation of debt, ultimately leading to greater costs over the timeframe of this study (2021–2045).

  • However, benefits also accrue more quickly, though not necessarily at the same rate as costs. The earlier LADWP achieves a zero-GHG-emission or 100% renewable system, the earlier the avoided emissions accumulate. Reducing emissions earlier has value in terms of reducing the magnitude of the effects of climate change. Similarly, new renewable energy jobs accrue more quickly.

  • If an earlier target is pursued, success would also require an accelerated schedule for renewable energy procurement, permitting, siting, and workforce training, among other activities.

  • The costs, GHG emissions, air quality, and public health trajectories across scenarios (within any given electrification level) are similar until each scenario reaches ~90% renewable and zero-carbon electricity. After 90%, the costs diverge for different scenarios, but the overall benefits plateau.

  • The SB100 scenario remains around 90% renewable and zero-carbon electricity through 2045 due to how this scenario is defined. But all the other scenarios move from 90% to 100% renewable electricity by 2045—and they exhibit sharp increases in costs in the last 10%.

  • The additional benefits of restricting technology eligibility in terms of air quality and public health, as measured in the selected scenarios analyzed in the study, are minimal when electrification levels are constant because natural gas consumption across all scenarios is significantly reduced or eliminated compared to today. Because changes to the power sector only contribute 0.8%–1% of the NOx emissions reductions among LA100 scenarios compared to 2012, and 10%–18% of the particulate-matter emission reductions, it is clear that changes to energy efficiency and electrification levels (for vehicles, buildings, and the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach) are the predominant cause of health benefits.

How Other Communities Can Follow LA's Lead

Many other deep-decarbonization and high-renewable-energy studies identify a significant role for solar, wind, and batteries to get most of the way to a 100% renewable future. The LA100 study's findings are consistent—and emphasize that cities across the nation can get started now (through renewable procurement, permitting, siting, and workforce training) while they work through longer-term, location-specific options for the final 10%–20% of the solution.

"Regardless of location, undertaking a power system transition of this scale benefits from complex analysis to provide deep insights for electrification, clean mobility, and power-sector decarbonization, coupled with implications for environmental justice, air quality, and economics," Cochran said. "To that end, the LA100 study charts a methodology that can be used to replicate, build upon, and scale up this type of analysis for other questions and jurisdictions."

NREL's new Accelerating Clean Energy (ACE) initiative aims to help accomplish just that by turning local clean-energy movements into national momentum. ACE brings together key components—technology and technology integration expertise, local community experience, and infrastructure investors—to provide insights, data-driven action plans, and implementation support for achieving local energy initiatives.

From Los Angeles to Kingston, New York, leading U.S. jurisdictions and companies are reaching out to NREL to inform key decisions on the road to clean and equitable energy futures."

—Doug Arent, director of NREL’s strategic public-private partnerships office and lead of the ACE initiative

ACE builds on the accomplishments of jurisdictions that have tapped into NREL's objective, cross-sectoral experience and analysis to inform key decisions—allowing more of them to tap into LA100-level capabilities to reach their goals.

Get the Full Findings

Read the LA100 executive summary to explore more high-level conclusions from NREL's extensive modeling, research, and stakeholder engagement.

Dig into the study findings on the LA100 website, which includes options to view results by scenario or topic, along with an interactive data viewer. It also includes links to download each chapter of the full report, which contain additional detail, including a complete list of study assumptions and data sources.

— Devonie McCamey