Disproving the Skeptics: 10x More Windpower and Solar is No Problem!

, Senior energy analyst | October 25, 2013, 4:11 pm EDT
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What would happen if we tried to make the electric supply 30% wind and solar? Air pollution goes down, and reliability is unaffected. Ok, now picture adding as much as 50,000 MW of wind and 60,000 MW of solar by the year 2026, and the engineers saying, “Sure, we can do that.”

That’s the finding of a study previewed today by the grid operator PJM and a consulting team led by General Electric. The results from a multi-year study show that adding 10 times more windpower than currently used in PJM’s 13 state area, and 5 times more solar power than in the U.S., creates reliability benefits and reduces greenhouse and toxic air emissions.

credit: U.S. DOE

credit: U.S. DOE

This is a technical report by the people with the longest records running an integrated electric grid, and modeling the specific impacts of wind and solar on the power supply. PJM has been running grids tied together since 1927. For over a decade, power system operators in the US, and experts included in this study have provided the public these kind of studies. The power system engineering community has reviewed and discussed these studies, their methods, and the reforms that are projected, adopted, or expected in numerous meetings, including next week’s Utility Variable Generation Integration Group workshop in Portland, OR.

The repeated results of these studies? “Sure, we can do that.”

So, what did we learn?

How much does each solar rooftop contribute to reliability needs of the grid? The measure is known as the effective load carrying capability, and in the PJM grid (when it reaches 20 – 30% variable renewables), the contribution to peak demands from residential solar photovoltaic (PV panels) is 57% of the solar panels’ rating!

credit: Mike Jacobs

credit: Mike Jacobs

How much generation is needed to manage the variability of all this wind and solar? The need for reserves to manage the variability of the combined wind and solar (spread over 13 states and the District of Columbia) is 4% (yes four) of the 100,000 MW of added wind and solar. These resources will be used more than today. It is unclear how this reflects the recent “pay-for-performance” reforms PJM applied to this service. PJM has said elsewhere that they see more fast-performing reserve sources than presently needed.

So, next time someone says that wind and solar can’t help us run the modern power grid, you can tell that they are simply behind in their reading.  This study adds to the body of knowledge, as well as the day-to-day experiences around the U.S. and the world, that “sure, we can do that.”

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  • I have no doubt that the addition of earth based solar and wind power would “creates reliability benefits and reduces greenhouse and toxic air emissions.” But that is not the problem facing humanity, which is how to get off of fossil fuels altogether(or nearly so), and fast enough to avoid destabilizing the atmospheric patterns we’ve evolved with. I think there is a solution to that problem by harvesting solar energy on the moon, where it is entirely reliable and predictable, and beaming it back with microwaves(see the website). I don’t know that earth based renewables can do the job, and would like to know if there are studies that answer that question one way or the other. To be clear, the job is to provide electrical power to everyone on the planet at a level approaching 2Kw/person, the rate consumed by efficient developed countries. This is sufficient to maintain a standard of living that will likely be aspired to by most of the population, including those who now have no electrical power. If that energy cannot be supplied with renewable forms, it will be supplied by fossil fuels, whatever is done in the most developed countries. This clearly cannot be done with fossil fuels, even if the climate instability wasn’t a problem. But can it be done with solar and wind power either, which have intermittency problems, and hence storage problems. At the moment, it would cost about $20,000 for a solar panel system on your home, that would provide for the average home, and which, at current electricity rates, would amortize itself in 20 years. Thats about the lifetime of the system. That isn’t a feasible cost for most of the worlds population. Leaving aside the monetary cost, is the ecological cost of mining and manufacturing the materials for a totally wind and solar based energy system one that the planet can sustain?

    If anyone has references to studies that have attempted to answer those questions I would appreciate hearing about them.

  • Karina Lutz

    The “study previewed today” link is broken on PJM’s website.

  • Gerardo A.de Benito

    Two big dangers in Energy: Nuclear(radioactivity and residues),and GHG (Global Warming).
    Two solutions: Wind( land and sea) and Solar, energies.
    And when USA production capacity of their equipment may be 100% working,there is iddle production capacity ready elsewhere.
    And not at all : danger,no pollution,no residues.Cheaper every year.And NO END.

  • John Miller

    The evidence keeps piling up. I know you’ve been working in this area for years so thanks for your diligence. We may just get there…

    (FYI – the first link to PJM is broken.)

  • Leif Knutsen

    Not any job, only Green Jobs can start to move the economies of the world out of the morass. As long as capitalism has the ability to profit, handily I would add, from polluting the commons, every “Black” job just digs the hole deeper. Only green jobs ADD VALUE to the economy and start to rejuvenate Earth’s life support systems as well as the economy via energy from the renewable sector.
    Corporations are “People” now for better or worse. Speaking as a “Real People”, if I throw a paper cup out the car window, bingo, ~$100 fine. ($1,000 in Alaska.) Corpro/People can pollute the air, water, dirt, and oceans with Toxins and the dirtiest Corpro/People have become richest Corpro/People in the world and the foundation of Western Capitalism. Still Corpro/People get rich and even subsidized with YOURS & MY TAX MONEY. I cannot stop it but “We the People can!. GOP don’t fund abortion. Fine. A precedent. How come I must fund the Ecocide of Earth’s life support systems? Go figure. Please help! Stop profits from the pollution of the commons…. PLEASE…

    • Thank you for your comments Leif. You have summarized a lot of feeling about the imbalances in society. I hope this report showing the path to far greater reliance on wind and solar will be useful to your efforts.

  • Jim

    To follow the evolution of our shifting power base, “Like” https://www.facebook.com/powershiftoverview?ref=hl.

    • Jim- Thanks for the links. Making more of this visible makes more of this possible.

  • Richard

    ‘One learns from experience’ in life! Tell that to the skeptics. And those who want to continue using nuclear power even after the events at Fukushima have demonstrated its dangers.

  • Richard

    The NY Times ran a story in the last few days about Japan’s efforts to build floating wind turbines off the coast. Apparently, they ‘simply’ anchor them to the bottom rather than permanently attach them there. This is being considered because the ocean is so deep there that it is too costly and difficult to attach them to the bottom.

    They admit it is still costly/impractical. But they are hopeful that this will become more cost effective in the future.

    • Thanks for the comment, Richard. The PJM study includes scenarios with 4,000 – 34,000 of off-shore wind, large amounts which PJM selected. The continental shelf on the East Coast offers options for foundations, or floating turbines, as you described.
      The wind industry has demonstrated that a great deal of progress comes through improvements and learning through continued deployments.
      The lessons from experience with integration of variable wind output on the grid are a big part of the story of this PJM report. We are better off starting and learning, than deciding it can’t be done and not trying.