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Imagine a civilization powered only by renewable sources: wind, solar, water (hydro), natural heat (geothermal) and plants.
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No coal mines, oil wells, pipelines or coal trains. No greenhouse gas emissions, car exhaust or polluted streams. There are no wars over oil, dependence on foreign suppliers, or lack of resources.
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A growing number of activists say it is available. The idea inspired ambitious commitments from a growing number of cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Lawyers are calling on states to support the case.
Clean energy enthusiasts often claim that we can move forward, that it is possible to power the entire world with renewable energy sources; only “political will” is missing.
Not yet. Not really. The current model strongly suggests that we will need a broader portfolio of low-carbon options, including nuclear and possibly coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), to achieve deep carbon reductions.
However, this is only the current model. There are many reasons to question what the models are telling us about the last three, four or five decades into the future. Renewables are generally undervalued and probably still are. There is much debate not only about what the models show, but also about what lessons we should learn from them and how we should approach the task of decarbonisation.
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But it’s all a bit in the weeds. Before we get into an angry back and forth like I will in the next post, let’s take a step back.
In this post, I just want to introduce the 100 percent renewable energy debate to those who are not familiar with it. Think of it as the ground state for orientation.
The biggest political divide in the world of climate change is between those who accept the urgency of the problem and those who do not. Those who do not run the federal government today. Their energy plans are a celebration of fossil fuels.
The debate about 100 percent renewable energy is not about this gap. This is a debate between people who accept a rapid reduction in carbon dioxide emissions sufficient to keep the rise in global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Achieving the global target requires “deep decarbonisation” – an 80 to 100% reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions – worldwide by mid-century or shortly thereafter.
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Both sides of the debate agree that any deep decarbonisation scenario will essentially involve the electrification of everything. Specifically, two things need to be done simultaneously: a) carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector must be eliminated and b) as many other energy services (transport, heating and industry) must be transferred to electricity.
(Yes, I realize that “everything” is an exaggeration, there will probably always be tasks that require burning liquid fuel, but as my grandfather used to say, it’s pretty close to a government job).
If we do, we use electricity to transport, heat our buildings and run our factories, the demand for energy increases. Different models predict different things, but at the top end we’re talking about a 150 percent or more increase in energy demand by mid-century.
This means that the power grid needs to be bigger, more sophisticated, more efficient and more reliable.
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This is where the controversy arises. On the one hand, there are those who say we need to move to an all-renewable electricity system, particularly a draft solution based on the work of Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and supported by the senior green group. including Van Jones, Mark Ruffalo and Jacobson himself.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the ultimate goal is zero carbon dioxide emissions, not 100 percent renewable energy. They say we will need significant amounts of nuclear and fossil fuel power through CCS, in addition to wind, solar and other technologies favored by climate hawks.
This is a debate. Some climate hawks oppose nuclear power and CCS. Others, whose attitudes range from enthusiasm to weary resignation, believe they will be necessary for deep decarbonisation.
(If he shrugs and says, “It’s too early to tell,” he’s right, but he’s not fun to argue with.)
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All the debate boils down to one simple fact: the most common sources of carbon-free energy, wind and solar, are variable. The sun does not always shine; the wind does not always blow.
– Grid operators cannot turn them on or off as needed. Power comes when it comes, not when it doesn’t. Network operators adapt to this, not the other way around.
As more and more grid power comes from variable renewable energy (VRE), two types of problems are starting to emerge.
One group of problems is technical in nature (explained in more detail here). As VRE capacity increases, grid operators have to deal with large power peaks (such as on sunny and windy days) that sometimes exceed 100 percent of demand. If this excess energy cannot be absorbed in any way, it is “reduced”, that is, wasted.
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They also have to deal with huge VRE drops. It happens every day when the sun goes down, but changes in the VRE offer can happen over a week, a month, a season or even a decade.
And finally, grid operators have to deal with rapid ramps, meaning VRE can go from generating almost nothing to producing tons of power, or vice versa, in a short period of time. It requires fast, flexible, short-term resources that can be scaled up or down.
The much-talked about “duck curve” (among electrical folks): utility electricity demand in one day of AC as VRE increases. CASSIUS
As each new megawatt (MW) of VRE is switched on, it gradually reduces the value of the grid.
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MW is VRE. A new MW of wind power produces power only when another wind power produces power. Same with solar energy.
As wind and solar power are increasingly used on the grid, the value of resources that can provide energy when VRE
The generator will go up; therefore, the marginal value of the next VRE unit decreases. This means that solar power in particular has an increasingly high economic bar to overcome.
To be clear: there are tools to address these technical and financial challenges. Lots of tools, more every day. There is a thriving and vibrant swarm of research and innovation in this field. (More on that here.)
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Much can be achieved by replacing natural gas combined cycle power plants with coal plants. While this is happening, you will be creating renewables and maintaining your existing fleet of nuclear and hydroelectric plants. This is how the US has reduced carbon emissions in recent years.
The strategy works very well for a while. Natural gas plants are much more flexible than coal plants, so they complement ERVs nicely by smoothing out variability.
But when it comes to deep decarbonisation, the strategy ultimately leads to a dead end. Natural gas is cleaner than coal (about half as much, depending on how methane leaks are measured), but it’s still a fossil fuel. At least without CCS it is not compatible with more than 60% decarbonisation.
For resistance. This is just one example of energy path dependency: decisions, once made, tend to perpetuate themselves through inertia. Over-reliance on natural gas over the next 20 years will make it difficult to withdraw it in the next 20 years.
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Avoiding this impasse means thinking now about how to replace natural gas with other balancing resources that do not emit carbon dioxide.
As mentioned above, non-dispatchable means VRE (onshore wind, solar PV, solar thermal, river flow, anything dependent on weather) that cannot be turned on and off.
VRE can be made somewhat less variable by connecting resources to multiple transmission lines over a wide geographic area. A fairly large area usually has sunny or windy weather somewhere. But in a finite network, indivisible resources must usually be balanced with divisible resources.
Dispatch is a broad (and growing) category: it means anything that grid operators can use to actively manage the balance between electricity supply and demand.
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Within these three categories, resources range from high capacity (enough capacity to meet demand for weeks or months) to low capacity (hours or minutes) and from fast (responds instantly or seconds) to slow to slow (hours or days).
Depending on the conditions and the time of day, each resource to be sent has a slightly different value to network operators.
Distributable demand is still nascent, growing rapidly and, at least for now, relatively slow and underpowered, but that will change; it will be fast, though how big is still an open question.
Today, the largest energy storage (pumped water) can usually only meet the needs of a few hours, while smaller storage
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