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A 21st-century reinvention of the electric grid is crucial for solving the climate crisis
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A 21st-century reinvention of the electric grid is crucial for solving the climate crisis

Wind turbines next to a road on a rugged ridge.


James Hansen, a scientist, was born in the summer 1988. Testimony CongressThe planet was being dangerously heated by carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. Although many reports were written and scientific meetings were held to discuss the issue, no concrete action was taken because fossil fuels are relatively cheap.

In 2009, the cost of first wind turbines, then solar photovoltaic, dropped enough to be competitive in the electricity markets. More installations led to more “Learning curve” cost reductions — the decrease in cost with every doubling of deployment. The prices of solar power and wind power have dropped by an amazing 72 percent and 90%, respectively, since 2009, and they are now the lowest in the world. Electricity sources with the lowest prices — 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 in transport, buildings, and industry converted to electricity.

This is the direction that the U.S. is heading. 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 Offshore wind resources with high-value are available. But it will be Fast enough?

A recent study has shown that the U.S. must nearly triple its 2020 growth rate to ensure that the grid is 80% powered by clean electricity by 2030.

The Biden administration’s goal is to have a A carbon-free grid by 2030. According to a recent study, the U.S. will need to Its 2020 growth rate will be nearly tripledBy 2030, the grid will be powered 80 percent by clean energy. (As hard as it may sound, China has reportedly installed 120,000 megawatts in wind and solar power in 2020.

The electric grid is the foundation of this transition.

Three ways to bring solar and wind into the grid

The recipient of the prestigious Greatest invention of the 20thcenturyOur now-dead grid was built on basic concepts that made sense at the time. The original foundation consisted of large-scale hydropower and “base load” coal plants, which operated 24 hours a days.

These power plants were built in 1958 and later expanded by nuclear power stations. These plants have almost continuously paid off their large capital investments. Solar and wind are different from coal and nuclear. They provide power only when the sun shines on them.

It takes a new way of thinking to convert to a 21st century grid that is increasingly dependent on 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. These are all options for flexibility.

Lithium-ion batteries are largely responsible for storage. Their costs have plummeted, new storage technologies are being developed.

It is particularly valuable to have expanded transmission. Even though the Northeast experiences peak electric demand in the evenings, there is still sunlight 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 gridsThese are highly beneficial.

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

Innovative solutions that make 100% clean electricity possible

Many analysts believe that the United States can operate a power grid cost-effectively and reliably. With 80 percent to 90% clean electricityHowever, decarbonizing the remaining 10 percent to 20% of the country’s energy supply will be more difficult. Short-duration storage that lasts four hours or less is becoming commonplace, but we will likely need to provide power during periods when solar and wind resources are low (what the Germans refer to as dunkelflaute, or “dark don’ts”). While an expanded national transmission network is a good idea, some long-duration storage will be necessary.

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

Flow batteriesThese are just a few of the promising ideas we are currently working on at The Renewable and Sustainable Energy InstituteUniversity of Colorado A typical design sees liquid electrolyte flow between two storage tanks separated with a membrane. You can scale the tanks to fit your storage needs.

Green hydrogenIt can be used as a storage option for very long periods. It is made by splitting water molecules using an electrolyzer that uses renewable electricity. The hydrogen can either be stored underground or above ground and then burned in combustion engines or converted to electricity in fuel cell. Green hydrogen is expensive, but it is expected to become less expensive as more people realize the benefits of green hydrogen. The cost of electrolyzers has fallen.

Although green hydrogen is expensive, it will become more affordable as electrolyzers cost less.

Additionally, new market design, grid operator, and business models are emerging. Community solar gardensFor example, they allow homeowners to buy locally produced solar electricity even though their roofs do not permit for it. MicrogridsThese business models are becoming increasingly common on campus and complexes. They produce electricity locally and can continue operating if the grid is down. The microgrids can be powered by renewable energy or batteries.

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 ratesThat encourage electricity use, such charging electric vehicles when there is plenty of renewable electricity. Expanded coordination of balancing areaThe grid draws on wind and variable solar resources from a broad region to provide a smoother overall supply. Improved grid operations Advanced forecasting for solar and windTo reduce wasted power and the need for expensive standby reserves Dynamic line ratingGrid operators can transmit more electricity through existing lines when the weather is favorable.

Energy efficiency can transform the power sector, reduce costs, and improve reliability across the economy.

The transition to renewables can be made easier by nuclear power, which is almost 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 expensive 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 number one priority is to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The No. 1 priority is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The world already has the tools necessary to make the grid 80 percent to 90% carbon-free. Technical experts are exploring a variety of promising options to achieve the last 10 percent to 20%.The Conversation

This article has been republished from The ConversationUnder a Creative Commons licence


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