Climate News Network

Renewables offer quick fix for US emissions

January 31, 2016, by Tim Radford

A wind farm sprouts alongside the Interstate 10 road near Whitewater, California
Image: Chuck Coker via Flicker

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Scientists say interstate energy “highways” would allow current wind and solar technologies to deliver electricity where and when it’s needed throughout the US.

LONDON, 31 January, 2016 – The US could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by 80% below 1990 levels within 15 years just by using renewable sources such as wind and solar energy, according to a former government research chief.

The nation could do this using only technologies available right now, and by introducing a national grid system connected by high voltage direct current (HVDC) that could get the power without loss to those places that needed it most, when they needed it.

This utopian vision – and it has been dreamed at least twice before by researchers in Delaware and in Stanford, California – comes directly from a former chief of research in a US government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Dr Alexander MacDonald, a distinguished meteorologist, was until recently, the head of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Supply and demand

He and colleagues at the University of Colorado report in Nature Climate Change that instead of factoring in fossil fuel backup, or yet-to-be-invented methods of storing electricity from wind and solar sources, they took a new look at the simple problems of supply and demand in a nation that tends to be sunny and warm in the south and windy in the north, but not always reliably so in either place.

Their reasoning was that storage technologies could only increase the cost of renewable energy, and increase the problem of reducing carbon emissions.

So they modelled the US weather on timescales of one hour over divisions of the nation as small as 13 square kilometres to see what costs and demand and carbon dioxide emissions would be, and how easily renewable power could meet the demand.

They reasoned that even though wind turbines are vulnerable to periods of calm and that solar energy sources don’t do much in rainy weather or at night, there would always be some parts of the country that could be generating energy from a renewable source.

They then factored in future costs – the cost of both wind and solar has been falling steadily – and scaled up renewable energy to match the available wind and sunlight in the US at any time.

“An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis”

“Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology, and within 15 years,” Dr MacDonald says.

The model embraced fossil fuel sources as well as renewable ones, for purposes of comparison. It revealed that low cost and low emissions are not mutually exclusive. The US could have both.

“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” says Christopher Clack, a physicist and mathematician with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, and a co-author of the study. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”

Even in a scenario where renewable energy cost more than experts predicted, the model produced a system that cut carbon dioxide emissions 33% below 1990 levels by 2030, and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). By comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

If renewable energy costs were lower and natural gas costs higher, as is expected in the future, the modelled system sliced carbon dioxide emissions by 78% from 1990 levels and delivered electricity at 10 cents per kWh. The year 1990 is the baseline for greenhouse gas calculations.

Low-cost sources

The model achieved its outcome without relying on any new electrical storage systems. The national grid did need augmentation from nuclear energy, hydropower and natural gas, but the real innovation would be the connection of large numbers of low-cost renewable energy sources to high-energy-demand centres, using efficient new transmission systems.

It seems that HVDC transmission is the key to keeping costs down, and Dr MacDonald compared such power links to the interstate highways that cross the US, and which transformed the US economy 50 years ago.

“With an ‘interstate for electrons’, renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” he says.

“An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.” – Climate News Network

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
6 comments Show discussion Hide discussion
  • Tim – thanks for this interesting overview of the new study.
    Like its predecessors it appears to leave one critical question unanswered.
    While using variable inputs of the cost of renewable energy, it apparently fails to ensure that
    each power generator is getting sufficient sales to give a commercially viable return on capital.

    To use a simple hypothetical example, if a nation with 100 states of equal power output and equal power demand
    is cutting fossil use to 20% with 80% renewables, then each state must deploy renewables
    for at least 4 times its own needs, so that when only 20 states have a flux of solar and/or wind energy,
    each of them can suppy itself plus 3 other states, with a fifth state getting fossil power.
    Under a perfect distribution of the provision of daytime solar energy and 24hr/day wind energy
    this would work well, but that isn’t the real conditions faced.

    The very patchy provision of wind and solar energy both spacially and temporally imply
    that to get down to 20% fossil usage – while also allowing for ~5% transmission losses –
    each ‘state’ would need to deploy far more than 4 times its own needs, and the additional facilities
    would not be getting anything like the sales necessary for commercial viability. They would in effect
    be acting as back-up with only occasional use, meaning that they would have to be garranteed
    a sales-income-per-year regardless of output, for anyone to invest in their deployment.

    I would hope that the researchers have incorporated this factor into their study and have been
    able to show that the diminishing costs of RE actually offset the costs of this large over-capacity requirement.
    However, none of the three studies addressing the benefits of a US national HVDC grid have been reported
    as incorporating this factor, despite substantial discussion of their findings.

    I’d thus be grateful if you could clarify just where the new study stands on the need of a large and costly
    over-capacity requirement, as one of the effects of these studies, if they’re taken at face value, is to undermine
    the case for the RD&D of the potentially crucial Baseload Renewable Energies such as Offshore Wave
    and Geothermal.

    Regards,
    Lewis

  • Clark Gellings from IEEE made a very similar argument in July 2015 issue of Spectrum here – http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/the-smarter-grid/lets-build-a-global-power-grid/

    • My wife and I live off-grid in Wales and we’re completely in awe of you! Fantastic! A true trail-blazer. Let’s hope more pelpoe find the way. Not everyone can do as much as you but every little bit helps.

  • While a noble suggestion, the ‘transition’ proposed here lacks some rather ‘inconvenient facts’. Perhaps most importantly, much (if not all) of the alternative energies we could transition to are anything but ‘clean’ when one considers all of the extraction, manufacture, transportation, maintenance, and disposal processes inherent in them (however, as wth any marketing campaign, the parties pushing these products will attempt to keep the negative aspects well-hidden from the public). So, a shift from fossil fuels to alternatives is just replacing one problem with another and doesn’t address some of the more fundamental issues such as the infinite growth dependency of our economc system and our ever-increasing population.
    Fossil fuels not only provide the energy required for our manufacturing processes that alternatives will be hard-pressed (if even possible) to replace (including those needed to create the alternatives) but have been used to underpin much of the world’s food production (while not particularly wise over the long-term, the world’s population depends upon fossil fuel-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers to remain fed).
    We have painted ourselves into a corner by creating a world dependent upon a one-time windfall of a finite resource that was abundant, relatively inexpensive, and easily transportable, and a belief that we can simply transition to some alternative is fanciful in the extreme. The realty is that the world will be hard-pressed to maintain any semblance of today’s energy-intensive conveniences (let alone social order) when the post-carbon age arrives.
    There are things we could do to avoid the fallout from the end of the age of oil but it is highly unlikely (in fact, probably impossible) that they will be achieved. Humans tend not to plan for the long-term preferring the instant gratification of short-term thinking so it seems to me that we are destined to experience the ecological phenomenon of overshoot and collapse. But, being who we are we will tend to deny that stark reality until we have run over the cliff and suddenly realise there is no longer any solid ground beneath our feet. It’s even more difficult when the-powers-that-be that benefit from the status quo are doing all they can to keep us distracted from such thinking.
    http://olduvai.ca

    • Free Energy is real but the coverup is stonrg, if you are interested in a REAL free energy machine then just search for the LT MAGNET MOTOR in the youtube video search , it is probably the ONLY working magnet motor out there. Join the free energy revolution!!

  • Though this meme is aimed at this article’s reprint in The Ecologist, the same information is relevant. http://tinyurl.com/hbk5v9o

Add a comment