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21st Century Reinvention Of the Electric Grid Is Critical for Solving the Climate Crisis
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21st Century Reinvention Of the Electric Grid Is Critical for Solving the Climate Crisis

Wind turbines next to a road on a rugged ridge.


The integration of solar panels with agriculture can provide partial shade to plants. Photo credit: Werner Slocum/NREL

By Charles F. Kutscher and Jeffrey Logan

James Hansen, a scientist, was born in the summer 1988. Testimony CongressCarbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels was causing dangerously high temperatures. While scientific meetings were held, numerous reports were created, and national pledges were made. However because fossil fuels were relatively cheap, very little concrete action was taken.

In 2009, the cost of first wind turbines, then solar photovoltaic, dropped enough to be competitive in the electricity markets. More installations resulted in more “Learning curve” cost reductions – the decrease in cost with every doubling of deployment. Prices of wind and solar power have dropped by astonishing 72% and 92%, respectively, since 2009. They are now at their lowest point in over a decade. The cheapest electricity sources – although some challenges still exist.

As the planet faces increasingly severe heat waves and droughts, wildfires and storms it became clear that there was a way to address the climate crisis. The electric grid must be transitioned to carbon-free wind/solar and all fossil fuel users must be converted to electricity in transport, buildings, and industry.

The U.S. is moving in this direction. Early projectionsThe world just finished a record year in renewable electricity growth in 2021. record 33,500 megawattsAccording to BloombergNEF data, there will be a lot of solar and wind energy installed in the U.S. by 2020. Even Expect faster growth ahead, especially given the Biden administration’s plans to tap High-value offshore wind resources. But it will be Fast enough?

The Biden administration’s goal is to have a Carbon emissions-free grid by 2035. According to a recent study, the U.S. will need to Its 2020 growth rate will be nearly tripledThe grid should be 80% powered entirely by renewable energy by 2030. (Although it may sound difficult, China installed 120,000 megawatts solar and wind in 2020.

This transition begins with a fundamental change in the electric grid.

Three Ways to Bring Sunlight and Wind into the Grid

It is hailed as the “The” The greatest invention of the 20th CenturyOur grid, which is now in its twilight years, was built on fundamental concepts that were valid at the time. The original foundation was a combination of “base load” coal plants that operated 24 hours a day and large-scale hydropower.

These were added to in 1958 by nuclear power plants. They have been almost continuously operating since then to repay their large capital investment. Solar and wind, unlike coal and nuclear are not fixed. They only provide power when there is sun or wind.

It takes a new way to think about how to transform to a 21st-century grid, which is increasingly dependent upon variable resources. New sources of flexibility – the ability to keep supply and demand in balance over all time scales – are essential to enable this transition.

Wind turbines next to a road on a rugged ridge.
Pine Tree Wind Farm, near Tehachapi in California, provides renewable energy to Los Angeles. Dennis Schroeder / NREL

There are three main ways to deal with the variability of wind or solar energy. All these are sources of flexibility.

Storage is now largely provided by lithium-ion battery. Their costs have plummeted, new storage technologies are being developed.

The value of expanded transmission is especially important. When the Northeast is experiencing peak electricity demand in the early afternoon, there is still sunshine in the West. The large wind resources in central America can be used to transmit more power. Send electricity to both coasts. Transmission studies have demonstrated that stronger interconnections among the country’s three power gridsThey are extremely beneficial.

A big part of cleaning up the grid is making buildings more efficient and controlling their consumption. Buildings74% of U.S. electricity are used. Interconnected devices and equipment with smart meters can reduce and reshape a building’s power use.

Innovative Solutions That Make 100% Clean Energy Possible

Many analysts believe that the United States can operate a power grid cost-effectively and reliably. With clean electricity, 80% to 90%However, decarbonizing the last 10% to 20 percent of our energy supply will be more difficult. While short-duration storage, lasting four hours or less, is becoming ubiquitous, we will likely need to provide power during some periods when wind and solar resources are at low levels (what the Germans call dunkelflaute, or “dark doldrums”). While an expanded national transmission network is a good idea, some long-duration storage will be necessary.

Many options are being explored, including Alternative battery technologiesAnd green hydrogen.

Flow batteriesThese are just a few of the promising ideas we are working on at The Renewable and Sustainable Energy InstituteUniversity of Colorado In a typical design, liquid electrodelyte flows between two storage containers separated by a membrane. The tanks can be enlarged to accommodate the storage duration.

Green hydrogenIt can be used as a storage option for very long periods. It is made from the splitting of water molecules with an electrolyzer using renewable electricity. The hydrogen can either be stored underground (or above-ground) or used to make electricity in fuel cells. Green hydrogen is very expensive, but will become more affordable with the advent of green hydrogen. Electrolyzers are now less expensive.

New business, market design, and grid operator models are also emerging. Community solar gardensFor example, they allow homeowners to buy locally produced solar electricity even though their roofs do not permit for it. MicrogridsAnother business model that is becoming more common on campuses and complexes is the production of electricity locally. They can also continue to operate even if the grid goes down. Renewable energy and batteries power clean microgrids.

A man stands on a roof with solar panels and a community in the background.
Bishop Richard Howell stands in front of some of the 630 solar panel roofs of his Minneapolis church. The community solar project generates clean energy for the community. AP Photo / Jim Mone

Innovative market designs include Time-of use ratesEncourage electricity use such as charging electric cars when renewable electricity is abundant. Coordination of expanded balancing areasThe grid draws on wind and variable solar resources from a broad region to provide a smoother overall supply. Improved grid operations Advanced forecasting of solar and windReduce wasted power and lower the need to have costly standby reserve power. Dynamic line ratingGrid operators can transmit more electricity through existing lines when the weather is favorable.

Energy efficiency can be transformed across the economy by paying more attention to it. This will reduce costs and improve reliability.

The transition to renewables can be made easier by nuclear power, which is virtually carbon-free. New nuclear plants in the U.S. can be expensive to build and take a long time to construct. They may also prove too costly to operate in a way that would allow firm variable solar or wind.

Our view is that the urgency of climate changes demands that we make every effort to address it. It is important to have a 2035 goal for emissions, but it is crucial to know what the U.S. will do to reduce its emissions. The No. The No. 1 goal is to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. The world has the tools to make the grid carbon-free from 80% to 90%. Technical experts are exploring many promising options to achieve that last 10% to 20%.

Charles F. Kutscher is a fellow and senior research associate at the Renewable & Sustainable Energy Institute, University of Colorado Boulder.

Jeffrey Logan is associate director of energy policy and analysis at the Renewable & Sustainable Energy Institute, University of Colorado Boulder.

Disclosure statement: Charles F. Kutscher does not disclose any affiliations beyond his academic position. Jeffrey S. Logan works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Reposted with permission The Conversation.


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