For the 20 percent wind scenario to work, billions must be spent on installing wind towers on land and sea and about 22,000 miles of new high-tech power lines to carry the electricity to cities, according to the study from the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"Twenty percent wind is an ambitious goal," said David Corbus, the project manager for the study. "We can bring more wind power online, but if we don't have the proper infrastructure to move that power around, it's like buying a hybrid car and leaving it in the garage,"
The private sector cannot fund all the needed spending, so a big chunk would have to come from the federal government through programs such as loan guarantees, Corbus said.
The Obama administration is already dedicating billions of dollars to double the amount of electricity produced by wind and other renewables energy sources by January 2012.
The Interior Department will decide this spring whether to approve the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That project, long delayed because of local opposition, would provide electricity to about 400,000 homes.
The amount of U.S. electricity generated by wind was up 29 percent during January-October of last year compared to the same period is 2008, according to the Energy Department.
Reaching the 20 percent threshold for wind by 2024 in the eastern electric grid would require 225,000 megawatts of wind generation capacity in the region, about a 10-fold increase from current levels, the study said.
One megawatt of electricity can provide power to about 1,000 homes.
Wind turbines would be scattered throughout the eastern grid, which extends from the Plains states to the Atlantic Coast and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the big wind farms would be concentrated off the Atlantic Coast in federal waters from Massachusetts to North Carolina and on land in Midwest states from North Dakota to Nebraska and into Kansas.
Many states already require utilities to produce a portion of their electricity from renewable energy sources, but a federal mandate covering all utilities nationwide would help create the 20 percent wind scenario, Corbus said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan said on Tuesday he thought the Senate would forgo dealing with climate change legislation this year after going through the contentious health care debate and instead focus on passing an energy bill that, in part, requires U.S. utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2021.