Just a few decades ago many experts fretted that variable power from wind turbines and solar panels would destabilize power grids. Today they’re debating the feasibility of 100 percent renewable power, which appears to be the most likely route to decarbonized energy systems by mid-century and thus our best shot at avoiding truly extreme climate change. Two of my recent feature articles explore what running grids on 100 percent renewable energy will take. My June cover story for NewScientist assesses the big picture, identifying the changes required in consumer behavior and power supplies and the technologies available to deliver them. My feature for Scientific American, meanwhile, takes a deeper dive into power grids, and how weather smarts must be built in to make the most of weather-driven “fuel” such as winds and sunlight. Both articles are behind paywalls online. One more reason to consider subscribing to two of the world’s top science magazines!
Wind-swept fires that killed more than 40 people in California have jolted the state’s biggest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE). State regulators and trial lawyers are probing the utilities’ tree trimming and line maintenance — common culprits in prior California fires. But they also examining a utility device that produces sparks by design: automatic circuit reclosers.
Relations between the United States and Mexico are strained as President Donald Trump pushes his promised border control wall and demands a U.S.-favored rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mexico and the southwestern states that border it continue building an international agenda for electricity. The region’s power players plan to complete a first set of projects before Trump’s term is up that will make the border far more electrically-porous.
As renewable power displaces more coal, gas, and nuclear generation, electricity grids are losing the conventional power plants whose rotating masses have traditionally helped smooth over glitches in grid voltage and frequency. One solution is to keep old generators spinning in sync with the grid, even as the steam and gas turbines that once drove them are mothballed. Another emerging option will get a hearing next week at the 15th International Workshop on Large-Scale Integration of Wind Power in Vienna: creating “synthetic inertia” by reprogramming wind and solar equipment to emulate the behavior of their fossil-fired predecessors.
Electrification is credited with delivering a seemingly endless list of social and economic goods. Nations that use more power tend to have increased income levels and educational attainment and lower risk of infant mortality, to name but a few. So I was baffled to stumble across a pair of economic analyses on electrification in India and Kenya, posted last month, that cast serious doubt on what has long assumed to be a causal link between the glow of electricity and rural development. “It is difficult to find evidence in the data that electrification is dramatically transforming rural India,” concludes Fiona Burlig, a fourth-year UC Berkeley doctoral student in agricultural and resource economics who coauthored the India study. “In the medium term, rural electrification just doesn’t appear to be a silver bullet for development.” Continue reading “Does Electrification Really Cause Economic Growth?”
Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, that brings together businesses and NGOs that distribute off-grid solar systems. They say bottom-up distributed energy solutions are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions. Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to their argument. Continue reading “Might That Emperor of Electricity, the Power Grid, Have No Clothes?”
Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply. Renewable energy has been booming. Between 2008 and 2013, renewable energy jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent. That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says. Continue reading “Hawaii Says ‘Aloha’ to 100% Renewable Power”