A new report has confirmed that a wind and solar-based energy system could provide up to 80 percent of US energy needs, though the change will require better technology, greater capacity and hundreds of billions of dollars.
The researchers analyzed 36 years of hourly sun and wind data to find out just how plausible a renewable-based energy system actually is.
"The sun sets and the wind doesn't always blow," Steven Davis, an associate professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, said in a statement.
"If we want a reliable power system based on these resources, how do we deal with their daily and seasonal changes?"
The analysis first examined how seasonal changes compare to seasonal energy demands. For instance, the study found there is 3.7 times more sun during the longest days of the summer compared to the shortest days of winter.
For wind power, the changes are even more drastic. Wind power fluctuates geographically as well as seasonally and is much harder to predict. As a result, this form of energy is considered far less reliable than solar.
While the results suggest there is enough energy from these renewable sources to supply the majority of US electricity needs, the idea presents some challenges.
In order to make up for fluctuations in wind and solar energy, the U.S. needs to improve their storage capacity and find a way to transport energy from one place to another with minimal losses.
The authors of the report suggest creating a nationwide network of high voltage transmission lines to transport energy from one side of the country to the other.
While the installation of such a system would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, it's a cheaper alternative to creating a network of large energy storage facilities.
The study is supported by a 2012 report that claimed the US could meet 80 percent of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2050, and a 2016 study that claimed the US could reduce 80 percent of its emissions with a network of wind and solar generators - even without better storage technology.
Although both of these studies have come under fire for being too optimistic, the new study is far more realistic about the challenges of a renewable-energy future.
Unlike the 2016 study, the new study claims that cheap energy storage is a prerequisite for a renewable-based energy system. Right now, we just don't have that.
According to the researchers, the storage capacity we currently need would take 150 years and over a trillion dollars for Elon Musk's giant battery facility to produce.
That just isn't fast enough, which is why the researchers suggest using nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources in the meantime.
All of these challenges aside, the researchers remain hopeful that a renewable future is on the horizon.
"The fact that we could get 80 percent of our power from wind and solar alone is really encouraging," Davis said.
"Five years ago, many people doubted that these resources could account for more than 20 or 30 percent."
The study was published in Energy and Environmental Science.