Could Renewable Energy Power Industrial America? It Already Does!

, Senior energy analyst | April 17, 2013, 12:11 pm EDT
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I recently spoke at the BlueGreen Alliance conference on the question: Could all U.S. manufacturing be powered by renewable electricity?

This is an excellent question if you are interested in the future of manufacturing and clean energy. And that is what the BlueGreen Alliance is all about.

When asked to think about this, I figured I would point to studies about the future that say 20%, 30%, even 80% renewable electricity are possible. But I realized that in some places, that future has already arrived.

UCS recently released a report, Ramping Up Renewables: Energy You Can Count On, which summarizes plenty of evidence that our modern economy can run on renewable electricity supplies.

The report describes how the grid remains reliable with increasing amounts of variable energy generation from wind and solar power. (See how in the Ramping Up Renewables infographic.) Experience with wind power and solar providing over 50% of the electricity demand already in some times and places proves the electric utility industry knows how to make renewable energy reliable. See summary here.

Let’s take a closer look

To meet the BlueGreen Alliance challenge of renewable energy supplying U.S. manufacturing, we will need renewable electricity to meet the industrial sector’s share of electricity consumption in the U.S., which is around 26 or 27%.

Keep in mind that nation-wide, 6-7% of the present-day supply of electricity comes from renewable hydro-electric facilities at waterfalls and dams. Including renewable hydropower produced in states with significant wind farms, the annual energy production from renewables is already over 70% in three states: Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington.

Data source: EIA Electric Power Monthly

Looking for more renewable sources?

Magma Energy Corp, geothermal generation in Soda Lake, Nevada. Photo: GEA)

There is considerable energy production and potential for growth from geothermal wells. Today over 4% of California’s electricity supply comes from the earth’s heat. Another under-used source, biomass (burning renewable fuels such as wood and agricultural residue), provides 26% of electricity generation in Maine and has considerable potential for expansion in the South.

These are renewable energy facilities that are less affected by daily weather patterns than wind and solar, and are projected to play a large role in the future scenario of 80% renewable electricity described by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab.

Transitioning to a system that relies heavily on wind and solar facilities does pose challenges to managing the electricity grid. New tools and technology are used to continue increasing the use of renewable energy. The grid needs flexibility, regardless of renewables, to deal with the predictable changes in electricity use from day to night, and also the unexpected, but common, trip of a breaker that disconnects a major power line or generator as large as a nuclear plant. Increasing scheduling flexibility is a hot topic (really) as it saves money and allows more wind and solar on the grid. Paying for more accurate flexible responses from generators is also hot.

Turns out, there is something for everyone

Everyone can be part of this flexibility. Home water heaters, air conditioners, and industrial users have flexibilities that can be paid for such services. Alcoa’s Warrick Operations (located in Southern Indiana) provides this in the Midwest ISO Energy Market. Grid operator PJM has demonstrated both water heaters and electric vehicle charging can be paid for this.

All good stuff, as these are easy-to-understand tools for bringing renewable energy on to the grid in ever-growing amounts. We also have power grid operators looking at weather forecasts for the added purpose of sunshine and wind predictions. That is another example of the utility industry learning to use existing tools in new ways, as the economy and society recognize the benefits of renewable energy.

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