Renewables Are Gaining Traction, but We Need to Be Able to Store the Energy
By Elliott Negin
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' recent decision to award the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to scientists who developed rechargeable lithium-ion batteries reminded the world just how transformative they have been. Without them, we wouldn't have smartphones or electric cars. But it's their potential to store electricity generated by the sun and the wind at their peak that promises to be even more revolutionary, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and protecting the planet from the worst consequences of climate change.
For that to happen, support for batteries needs to match the support renewable energy has received over the last few decades, shielding the industry from the Trump administration's continuing attempts to short-circuit it.
No matter how much President Trump "digs" coal, for instance, it can no longer compete economically. Since 2010, at least 289 coal plants have closed, comprising 40 percent of U.S. coal power capacity, and 50 of those plants have shut down since Trump took office.
Meanwhile, renewable electricity generation has nearly doubled over the last decade, and close to 90 percent of that expansion has come from wind and solar, which jumped more than fivefold. This April, wind, solar and hydroelectric power produced more electricity than coal for the first time ever.
That's all good news. If wind and solar maintain their exponential growth rate, the United States is on track to get all of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2050. Fulfilling that potential, however, will require two major advances: updating the rickety U.S. electricity grid and developing energy storage technologies that can enable the grid to incorporate more wind and solar power.
Updating an Antiquated System
Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia require utilities to increase the amount of electricity they generate from renewable resources over time. California, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., are leading the pack with a target of 100 percent by mid-century.
These renewable electricity standards have proven to be one of the most effective ways to curb U.S. global warming emissions. According to a 2016 Energy Department report, these standards cut carbon pollution nationally by 59 million metric tons in 2013 alone, akin to closing 15 average-sized coal-fired power plants. It would be even more effective to have a national standard, and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) has proposed one of 50 percent by 2035. But ratcheting up renewable electricity requirements can go only so far without modernizing the grid and increasing storage capacity.
While today's smartphones boast more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer on board Apollo 11, most of the power plants, transmission lines, transformers and poles that comprise the grid are at least 40 to 50 years old, built during the expansion of the electric power sector in the decades following World War II. With its aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks and vulnerability to climate impacts, today's grid gets a barely passing grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The grid was designed to transmit electricity from large, centralized plants, but power today flows from other sources, including solar and wind facilities. Rooftop solar panels and other "distributed" generation systems reduce the distance electricity has to travel, potentially increasing efficiency, but they also increase the complexity of transmitting electricity, and the amount generated from hour to hour varies. Investing in grid infrastructure would enable utilities to incorporate modern technology, making the grid more resilient and flexible, better able to integrate variable energy sources, and capable of providing real-time information so consumers can manage their energy use and save money.
100 Percent Clean Energy Is Possible — With Storage
A modernized electricity grid would have the capacity to store large amounts of excess electricity. Today, utilities have to produce the exact amount of electricity needed at a specific time to meet demand. With advanced storage technology, it doesn't have to be that way.
"Our electricity grid is where our food distribution system was before refrigeration," says Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). "Up until the 1920s, when the refrigerator became widely available, most people had to eat fresh food right away because they had no good way to keep it cold. A grid with storage capacity would allow consumers to light their homes at night with the extra energy from solar panels during the day."
One storage technology — pumped hydroelectric — has been around since the 1890s, and there has been increased interest in it in recent years because it can be paired with variable renewable sources. Hydroelectric plants pump water to elevated reservoirs and release it through turbines to generate electricity when demand is high. With 23 gigawatts of capacity, pumped hydro is currently the largest type of energy storage in the United States. That said, it represents less than 2 percent of U.S. generating capacity and is unlikely to grow much more due to the cost of building such facilities.
The ideal solution would be rechargeable, factory-size batteries that can store massive amounts of energy for days or even weeks. Today's grid-scale batteries can store only a few hours' worth of energy before they need to be recharged. That's enough to accommodate solar or wind power variability but not nearly enough to completely switch from fossil fuels to renewables.
Money is the main issue. Billions of private-sector dollars are now pouring into research and development for electric vehicle batteries, but they are only trickling in for grid batteries because the market is still in its infancy. That makes funding dependent on the U.S. government, which historically has supported cutting-edge research before the private sector was ready to invest. But federal funding for grid battery R&D has been deficient, and the United States is falling behind China, Japan and South Korea in the global battery market.
Bipartisan Support in Congress
Deploying batteries to store electricity generated when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing would enable the grid to handle more renewable energy. Fortunately, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle recognize that potential.
There are a handful of bipartisan energy storage bills now pending in the Senate. One bill, introduced by Angus King (I-Maine) and Martha McSally (R-Arizona), would provide $500 million over five years for a joint Energy and Defense department energy storage demonstration program. In September, the King-McSally proposal was folded into a bill proposed by King's fellow Mainer, Republican Susan Collins, which would dedicate $330 million over the next five years for storage R&D to help lower battery costs, which already have dropped nearly 40 percent since 2015. The Department of Energy supports a number of the proposed research efforts, which is not surprising, given Energy Secretary Rick Perry has called storage the "holy grail" of U.S. energy.
The House is also jumping on the bandwagon. In June, it passed an appropriations bill that boosts the Energy Department's energy storage budget by nearly 35 percent, and the budget of its Advanced Research Projects Agency — which has invested as much as 15 percent of its funding in electricity storage projects — by 17 percent. More recently, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee proposed legislation in November that would provide tax incentives for a range of clean energy technologies, including energy storage.
"Energy storage technology was developed right here in the United States, but we are losing out to other countries," says Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Increasing federal funding for energy storage R&D will pay big dividends for the U.S. economy and national security. Taking the right steps now will make our electricity grid cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable."
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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By Beth Ann Mayer
Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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