Renewable Energy, an Aging Electricity Grid, and the Solutions that Matter

December 9, 2013 | 6:17 pm
Laura Wisland
Former Contributor

The LA Times recently wrote an article about the U.S. electricity grid that inaccurately likens the challenges we face deploying large amounts of renewable energy to serious grid problems caused by major storms, cyber-attacks, or other forms of sabotage.

My colleague, Noah Long at NRDC, posted a blog in response that does a great job reminding us of why it’s important to keep pushing forward clean energy solutions. In sum, our planet can’t continue to handle the greenhouse gas emissions that are caused by burning fossil fuels. And, in order to have enough electricity to run our lives and businesses while drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, we need to scale up investments in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

Recognizing the critical role that renewables play in combating climate change, last week President Obama ordered the federal government to supply 20 percent of its electricity needs with renewables by 2020. The president’s action reminds us that wind and solar power technologies are no longer unconventional energy sources that we may be able to harness in the future, but clean energy options that we can take advantage of right now.

The grid is old. With or without renewables, we must spend money updating it.

You may come across reports that say that in order to bring on large amounts of renewables, we need to make major upgrades to the way we generate, transport, and store electricity. Some of the best large-scale renewable energy sources are located at a distance from load centers and we will need to build new transmission lines to access them. Wind and solar power generation profiles fluctuate with hourly weather patterns, which means that we need to predict these changes accurately, and make sure the rest of the grid is flexible enough to respond to these changes. Yes, these dynamics will require new investment.

But the fact of the matter is that the U.S. electricity grid — a piece of infrastructure whose function is essential for virtually all aspects of our modern economy — has not changed much in more than 100 years. Upgrading and replacing this old equipment and infrastructure is necessary with or without large investments in clean energy technologies.

Over the past decades, a systemic lack of investment in research and development efforts to make our grid more flexible, resilient, and cleaner have made things worse. According to Dr. Massoud Amin of the University of Minnesota, the U.S. electric power sector is ranked second from bottom across all major industries in R&D spending as a percentage of revenue, only higher than the pulp and paper business. He has estimated that updating to a modern and efficient electrical grid would cost $21 billion per year for the next two decades, and ultimately save us between $79 and $94 billion per year.

We have time to plan for renewables.

Even though 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted policies requiring renewable energy investments, the amount of renewables on the system is still quite modest: in the last 12 months ending in September, renewables (not counting large hydropower) accounted for less than 6 percent of total net generation. There is no reason for us to slow down our investments in a cleaner, safer energy future. The grid challenges cited by the LA Times, namely the variability of some renewable energy sources, are ultimately solvable.

Here are some examples of ways that today’s grid operations can adjust to make room for clean energy:

  • Improve weather forecasting. The more we are able to predict when the wind will blow and when clouds will pass over a solar array, the better we’ll be able to schedule that power into the grid when it is available, and plan for when it is not. New modeling tools and technologies built into the generation units are coming to market to meet this challenge.
  • Schedule energy and transmission more frequently than every hour. Outside of California and Alberta, there are limited opportunities to buy and sell electricity within a one-hour period. This makes the grid more clunky and unresponsive to the intra-hour generation variability of renewable energy resources. And remember, renewable generation is not the only thing that changes more frequently than every hour. Our electricity demand is constantly changing. Do you consult your neighbor when you decide to turn on your television at 3 in the morning? Markets need to be able to respond to this intra-hour variability so we don’t unnecessarily lock-in an hour’s worth of natural gas generation and space on a transmission line when we could take advantage of a clean wind resource, and ramp down the gas to save it for another time when the wind is not blowing.
  • Electrically transfer generation from one balancing authority to another. This practice is called a “dynamic transfer” and allows electricity to be generated in one balancing area, and absorbed into the grid in another. This is where the transmission sharing really comes into play. Dynamic transfers allow renewable energy to be built in places that make the most environmental and economic sense, and allow the electricity to be used by the balancing authority that is most able to integrate it into the grid. It creates additional flexibility on the system and will enhance the geographic diversity of renewable energy.

The time is right for a clean energy transition.

A clear understanding of how our energy choices impact climate change, the retirement of coal plants around the country, and the falling cost of both wind and solar power present compelling reasons and opportunities to make inevitable grid upgrades in a manner that supports clean energy technologies. Policies that focus on the long term by establishing renewable energy investment goals in the 2020 to 2030 frame provide adequate time for us to make cost-effective investments and send strong market signals for innovation to occur.

With a consistent vision on where we need to go, thoughtful planning, and appropriate policies that create market signals for clean energy solutions, there is no doubt in my mind that we can make this happen.