80% electricity from renewables? It's possible, but policy prevents it.


Derived from kd1s/flickr

If renewable energy is a good thing, then a lot of renewable energy is a very good thing, right? Not exactly, according to recent articles in the L.A. Times and Forbes about challenges posed by the growth of renewables.  But, as we’ve pointed out, the issue here is not too much renewable energy, but rather a vulnerable U.S. electric grid built for the last century.

It’s essential to remember the bigger picture in order to arrive at the truth of the matter: If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, renewable energy is a vital part of the solution.  And while an unprecedented abundance of renewable power may raise complex questions about how to integrate these resources, it also underscores the need – and vast opportunity – for critical energy infrastructure improvements.  Our response as a nation should not be to shrink from the challenges of renewables, but rather to keep working toward a smarter, more resilient energy system to meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond.

The challenges, and the opportunity

According to a study co-authored by Doug Arent, Executive Director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), we’ll have the technical capability by mid-century to rely on renewables for 80 percent of our electricity. So what’s the problem?

Not the science, but the policies.

The grid is not just a collection of aging power lines, “the grid is also built on an antiquated tangle of market rules, operational formulas and business models,” says the L.A. Times article. That’s why EDF is working to get the right policies in place at the state and national levels to make the clean energy future a reality.

More and better transmission capacity is necessary to deliver clean power, and to that end an estimated $163 billion worth of transmission investment and construction is already underway in the U.S. and Canada. For example, new transmission in Texas, the nation’s wind leader, is coming online right now to increase the state’s available wind power by 50 percent.

But while these increases represent much-needed upgrades, we don’t achieve a smarter, more flexible grid by simply enabling access to more energy – even if it comes from cleaner sources. The variability of renewable energy means we need to change how we use energy as well, and that means aligning clean energy incentives for utilities and customers and ensuring that we value clean resources fairly.

The tools to get us there

An equitable market recognizes the value of clean energy resources and tools such as grid-scale energy storage, which mitigates the variability of renewable power. Rapidly developing battery technology creates a new level of grid flexibility: We can charge batteries when it’s windy or sunny and use the stored power when it’s not. As utilities continue to explore how storage technologies can help integrate renewables, customers will reap the benefits from a smarter, more resilient energy system.

Similarly, demand response is a key tool for customers themselves to help reduce wasted energy as well as add clean energy to the mix. It is an energy management solution that uses technology to either turn off energy-intensive devices during periods of peak demand, or shift their use to a different time of day. Demand response puts power in the hands of customers – or more accurately, at their fingertips – allowing people to act as de facto power plants. 

EDF is studying how these innovative energy- and cost-saving approaches work on a practical level, in combination with a host of other smart grid technologies, in its partnership with Pecan Street Inc.  We are also working to optimize demand response rules at the regulatory level so that its benefits are valued as much as corresponding fossil fuel resources such as coal, oil and natural gas.

Over the next twenty years we’ll spend trillions of dollars modernizing our outmoded U.S. electric grid. As we do, let’s make sure we make it smarter, stronger and more resilient to accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy. This vast opportunity is not without difficulty, but it is up to us as a nation to meet the challenge.   

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Paul Stinson

Paul Stinson

Paul is a program coordinator for our US Climate and Energy program. 

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This is brilliant. Paul Stinson for President!

This is a great article, very informative and well put together, since it highlights the few lop holes that we need to go through before we as a nation become fossil fuel independent. Also, is good to know that EDF is on top of those issues with its political agenda. And let's cheer for Paul Stinson

You said; "The variability of renewable energy means we need to change how we use energy as well.." What does this mean "change how we use energy"?

"Over the next twenty years we’ll spend trillions of dollars modernizing our outmoded U.S. electric grid." Do you mean this is already planned or are you saying this upgrade plan has yet to be approved?

Global warming is, of course, a global problem. Considering the enormous growth in the need and use for electricity worldwide, are you saying that wind and a complete replacement grid systems to allow for its variability will serve these needs?

At minimum wind farms would have to match the current capacity of installed coal/gas/oil/nuclear plants to make enough of a difference in reducing carbon emissions by what has been estimated to be 60% to be effective. Comparing the sheer difference in required footprints between fossil-fuel and nuclear plants it's hard to imagine wind achieving this. If wind cannot do this, the only alternative to meeting world energy demand while reducing carbon emissions is nuclear power. Fortunately there is a much safer form of nuclear power generation than the uranium light water reactors that have caused so much fear. Thorium power.

Thank you for your comments and questions. Changing how we use energy means making choices – on a personal level, in our businesses and communities, and as a nation – to develop and use tools and resources that accommodate the variability of renewables. Demand response and energy storage (via batteries or electric vehicles, for example) are just two such resources that enable greater integration of clean, renewable energy.

Per the articles referenced in the post about transmission construction and battery storage development, hundreds of billions of dollars are currently invested in or planned for grid improvements, and it is estimated that the U.S. will spend more than $2 trillion over the next twenty years to modernize the electric grid further.

When we talk about smart power, it’s important to recognize that no single resource is a panacea. Creating a smart, flexible, more resilient grid and a cleaner energy future cannot mean reliance on any one fuel source, renewable or otherwise. Rather, it means working toward a sustainable mix of cleaner resources.

Thank you for your considered answer. There are those of us who have discovered the unfortunate truth about the abandonment of safe nuclear power development and the uranium light water reactors that were forced upon the world in the early 70s by the Department of Defense and the Nixon administration. We now face the daunting task of creating advocacy for Alvin C. Weinberg's proven and safe thorium-fueled alternative to these problematic plants in the face of the enormous and understandable anti-nuclear sentiment in the wake of Chernobyl and Fukushima. When you mention the "mix of cleaner resources" it is hoped that this alternative power resource, and the folks who are dedicating their lives to its revival can be recognized as serving our common goal of carbon emission reduction.

Paul, good morning. There is an engineer around the corner who can offer solar panels at $4 per kilowatt instead of $6, because he makes his own inverters and panel mounts, and uses word-of-mouth advertising to save costs. With battery technology improving, independence from the grid becomes more feasible. Against that background, how necessary does it become to invest in an upgrade of the grid infrastructure or to seek policy changes?

Thank you for your comments, Van. As your neighbor demonstrates, technological advancements are indeed helping to reduce the system costs of renewables, making them competitive with fossil fuels in many places. But while distributed generation and storage capacity are growing, centralized electricity generation still figures to be the prevailing method for years to come. That’s just one reason why it’s vital to upgrade the infrastructure. Additionally, smart power upgrades make the grid more flexible and allow for greater integration of renewables, in turn enabling increased distributed generation and energy independence. Getting the right policies in place now to value smart power resources fairly, and align incentives for customers and utilities, for example, paves the way toward this cleaner energy future.

This is the way to go, eradication of fossil fuel.