Making Power Grids 100 Percent Renewable

nsc_20180609-152x200Just 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!

Power Vaults a Contentious Border

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.

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Floating Turbines on the High Seas

The world’s first wind farm employing floating turbines is taking shape 25 kilometers off the Scottish coast and expected to begin operating by the end of this year. Atmospheric scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science argue that the ultimate destination for such floating power farms could be hundreds of kilometers out in the open ocean. Their simulations, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that winds over the open ocean have far greater staying power than those over land.

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Electrification Finance Is Failing

For all of the excitement about using solar power to bring electricity to the more than 1 billion rural poor worldwide living without it, big picture trends provide a sobering reality check. In spite of innovative off-grid technology and business plans and high profile initiatives aiming to power remote villages in subsaharan Africa, for example, electrification there is still falling behind population growth. In 2009 there were 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without power, and five years later that figure had risen to 632 million, according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) statistics. A deep-dive analysis of capital flows, released today by the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All program, shows that off-grid systems simply are not getting the support they deserve. “This research shows that only 1 percent of financing for electrification is going into this very promising and dynamic energy solution,” says SEforALL CEO Rachel Kyte, who calls the findings “a wake up call” for the international community. Continue reading “Electrification Finance Is Failing”

Can U.S. Grids Handle 100% Renewables?

Four Days in 2055: Dynamic heat and power supply on the mid-century wind, water and sunlight-fuelled U.S. grid simulated by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson

A battle royale between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fuelled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, while both sides claim to be objectively weighing the energy options, the arguments and backgrounds of the protagonists belie well-informed affinities for various energy sources (and informed biases against others). As sociologists of science would say, their choice of data and their reading of it reflects hunches, values, and priorities.

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Bark Versus Bite on Trump and Clean Energy

President-elect Donald Trump is a self-declared climate-change denier who, on the campaign trail, criticized solar power as “very, very expensive” and said wind power was bad for the environment because it was “killing all the eagles.” He also vowed to eliminate federal action on climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s emissions reduction program for the power sector. Trump’s rhetoric has had renewable-energy stocks gyrating since the election. But the impact on renewable-energy businesses could be far less drastic than many worst-case scenarios. “At the end of the day what Trump says and what is actually implemented are two completely different things,” says Yuan-Sheng Yu, an energy analyst with Lux Research. Read on at MIT Technology Review

Can Reprogrammed Renewables Stabilize Grids?

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.

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