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Imagine a civilization powered by energy from renewable sources: wind, sun, water (hydroelectric), natural heat (geothermal), plants.
No coal mines, no oil wells, no pipelines, no coal trains. No greenhouse gas emissions, car exhaust or polluted streams. No wars for oil, no dependence on foreign suppliers, no scarcity of resources.
A growing number of activists believe this is within reach. The idea has inspired ambitious commitments from a growing number of cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Advocates urge states to support this demand.
Clean energy enthusiasts often claim that we can prosper and that the entire world can run on renewable energy; We lack the “political will”.
Not yet. not really. For significant carbon reductions, the current model strongly suggests that we need a broader portfolio of low-carbon options, including nuclear power and perhaps coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
However, this is only the current model. There are many reasons to question the models that tell us three, four, and five decades out. In general, they underestimated renewable energy sources, and probably still do. 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.
But everything is a bit in the weeds. Before we get to the heart of the matter, as I will in my next post, let’s take a step back.
In this post, I want to introduce the 100% renewable energy debate to the uninitiated. Think of it as a foundation to guide you.
The most important political divide in the world of climate change is between those who accept the urgency of the problem and those who do not. Anything else is the responsibility of the federal government these days. Their energy projects are a celebration of fossil fuels.
The debate about 100 percent renewable energy is not about this divide. This is a dispute between people who agree that rapid cuts in carbon emissions should be enough to keep the rise in global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Reaching the global goal calls for “deep decarbonization,” an 80 to 100 percent reduction in total worldwide carbon emissions by mid-century or later.
Both sides of the argument agree that electrification of everything will be crucially involved in any deep decarbonisation scenario. Specifically, this will involve two things simultaneously: a) removing carbon emissions from the electricity sector, and b) converting as many other energy services (transport, heating, industry) to electricity as possible.
(Yes, I realize “everything” is an exaggeration; there will always be jobs that require burning liquid fuel, but as my grandfather said, this is pretty close to a government job.)
Doing so – using electricity to get around, heat buildings and run factories – increases demand for electricity. Different models predict different things, but at the high end we’re talking about an increase in energy demand of 150 percent or more by mid-century.
This means that the electricity grid must become larger, more complex, more efficient and more reliable.
This is where the controversy arises. On one side are those who say we should switch to a fully renewable electrical system, based on the work of Stanford’s Marc Jacobson, particularly the Solutions Project, which is backed by the high-profile Green Board. Also included are Van Jones, Mark Ruffalo and Jacobson.
On the other hand, there are those who say that the goal should be zero carbon emissions, not 100 percent renewable energy. In addition to wind, solar and other technologies favored by climate hawks, they say, with CCS we will also need significant amounts of nuclear and fossil fuel power.
Some climate hawks oppose nuclear power and CCS. Others, whose attitudes range from enthusiasm to weary resignation, believe they are necessary for deep decarbonization.
(If you shrug and say, “It’s too early to tell,” you’re right, but you don’t like to argue.)
The whole debate revolves around one simple fact: wind and solar, the most common sources of carbon-free energy, are variable. The sun does not always shine; The wind doesn’t always blow.
– People who maintain the power grid cannot turn it on and off as needed. Power comes when it comes and doesn’t come when it doesn’t. Network operators adapt to them, not the other way around.
As more and more electricity on the grid comes from variable renewable energy (VRE), two sets of problems are beginning to emerge.
One set of problems is technical (explained in more detail here). As VRE capacity increases, grid operators face large power spikes (eg, sunny, windy days) that sometimes exceed 100 percent of demand. If there is no way to absorb this excess energy, it is “diminished”, i.e. wasted.
They will also face big drops in VRE. It happens every day when the sun goes down, but changes in VRE distribution can happen over a week, a month, a season, or even a decade.
Finally, grid operators have to deal with fast ramps, meaning VRE goes from generating electricity to one ton or vice versa in a short period of time. It requires fast, flexible, short-term resources that can scale up or scale down in response.
The much-discussed (among electricity fanatics) “duck curve”: VRE increases utility electricity demand for one day in California. CAISO
As each new megawatt (MW) of VRE comes online, it progressively reduces the value of the grid.
MW VRE. A new megawatt of wind power produces electricity only when other wind power is produced. The same is true of solar energy.
As more and more wind and solar power enters the grid, the value of resources that can provide electricity while VRE
The generation will increase; The marginal value of the next VRE unit will decrease accordingly. This means that solar energy in particular has to overcome an increasingly high financial bar.
Now, to be clear: there are tools to solve these technical and financial problems. So many devices, more every day. There is a whole thriving and bustling body of research and innovation in this field. (More on that here.)
A lot can be achieved by replacing natural gas combined cycle power plants with coal-fired power plants. As this happens, it fosters renewable energy and sustains existing nuclear and hydropower plants. That is, in practice, how America has reduced carbon emissions in recent years.
The strategy works well for a while. Natural gas plants are more flexible than coal plants, so they act as a good complement to VRE, balancing out variability.
But in the case of deep decarbonization, this strategy ultimately leads to a dead end. Natural gas is cleaner than coal (about half as much, depending on how you measure methane leakage), but it’s still a fossil fuel. At least without CCS, this does not correspond to more than 60 percent decarbonization.
Endurance This is just one example of energy path dependence: choices, once made, persist through inertia. Excess natural gas over the next 20 years will make it difficult to get rid of them.
Avoiding this stagnation means we must now think about how to replace that natural gas with other, less carbon-emissions-balanced sources.
As mentioned above, non-manageable means VRE: onshore, offshore wind, solar PV, solar thermal, run-of-the-river hydro, anything that cannot be turned on and off depending on the weather.
Connecting resources over a wide geographic area with multiple transmission lines can make the VRE less variable. A large enough area is usually somewhere sunny or windy. But in a managed network, non-dispatchable resources usually need to be balanced with dispatchable resources.
Dispatchables are a broad (and growing) category, meaning anything that grid operators can use to actively manage the balance of electricity supply and demand.
Within these three categories, resources range from high capacity (capacity to meet demand over weeks or months) to low capacity (hours or minutes) and from speed (capable of responding instantly or seconds) to slow (hours or days). .
Each resource sent will have a slightly different value to network operators depending on conditions and time of day.
Outgoing demand is still in a nascent phase of rapid growth, relatively slow and low consumption, at least for now, but that will change; It will be fast, though size is still an open question.
Currently, the largest energy storage (pumped hydro) can typically cover only a few hours, but less
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