Quantcast
Business

Revamping Electric Grid for Renewables Offers Quick Fix for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The U.S. could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by 78 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years just by using renewable sources such as wind and solar energy, according to a former government research chief.

The nation could do this using only technologies available right now and by introducing a national grid system connected by high voltage direct current (HVDC) that could get the power without loss to those places that needed it most, when they needed it.

A wind farm sprouts alongside the Interstate 10 road near Whitewater, California. Photo credit: Chuck Coker / Flickr

This utopian vision—and it has been dreamed at least twice before by researchers in Delaware and in Stanford, California—comes directly from a former chief of research in a U.S. government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Dr. Alexander MacDonald, a distinguished meteorologist, was until recently, the head of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Supply and Demand

He and colleagues at the University of Colorado report in Nature Climate Change that instead of factoring in fossil fuel backup or yet-to-be-invented methods of storing electricity from wind and solar sources, they took a new look at the simple problems of supply and demand in a nation that tends to be sunny and warm in the south and windy in the north, but not always reliably so in either place.

Their reasoning was that storage technologies could only increase the cost of renewable energy and increase the problem of reducing carbon emissions.

So they modeled the U.S. weather on timescales of one hour over divisions of the nation as small as 13 square kilometers to see what costs and demand and carbon dioxide emissions would be and how easily renewable power could meet the demand.

They reasoned that even though wind turbines are vulnerable to periods of calm and that solar energy sources don’t do much in rainy weather or at night, there would always be some parts of the country that could be generating energy from a renewable source.

They then factored in future costs—the cost of both wind and solar has been falling steadily—and scaled up renewable energy to match the available wind and sunlight in the U.S. at any time.

“Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years,” Dr. MacDonald said.

The model embraced fossil fuel sources as well as renewable ones, for purposes of comparison. It revealed that low cost and low emissions are not mutually exclusive. The U.S. could have both.

“The model relentlessly seeks the lowest-cost energy, whatever constraints are applied,” Christopher Clack, a physicist and mathematician with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and a co-author of the study, said. “And it always installs more renewable energy on the grid than exists today.”

Even in a scenario where renewable energy cost more than experts predicted, the model produced a system that cut carbon dioxide emissions 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). By comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

If renewable energy costs were lower and natural gas costs higher, as is expected in the future, the modeled system sliced carbon dioxide emissions by 78 percent from 1990 levels and delivered electricity at 10 cents per kWh. The year 1990 is the baseline for greenhouse gas calculations.

Low-Cost Sources

The model achieved its outcome without relying on any new electrical storage systems. The national grid did need augmentation from nuclear energy, hydropower and natural gas, but the real innovation would be the connection of large numbers of low-cost renewable energy sources to high-energy-demand centers, using efficient new transmission systems.

It seems that HVDC transmission is the key to keeping costs down and Dr. MacDonald compared such power links to the interstate highways that cross the U.S. and which transformed the U.S. economy 50 years ago.

“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” he said.

“An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE 

Elon Musk vs. Warren Buffett: The Billionaire Battle Over the Future of Solar Power

Copenhagen Set to Divest Funds Out of Coal, Oil and Gas Holdings

Elon Musk: ‘You Can Easily Power All of China With Solar’

Rooftop Solar Wars Continue

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Leonardo DiCaprio/Getty

Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Awards $20M in Largest-Ever Portfolio of Environmental Grants

Environmental activist and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio announced that his foundation has awarded $20 million to more than 100 organizations supporting environmental causes.

This is the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation's (LDF) largest-ever portfolio of environmental grants to date. The organization has now offered more than $80 million in total direct financial impact since its founding in 1998.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Andrew Hart/Flickr

UN Environment Chief: Make Polluters, Not Taxpayers, Pay For Destroying Nature

Erik Solheim, the head of the United Nations' Environment Program, made an interesting point during a recent speech in New York: Companies, not taxpayers, should pay the costs of damaging the planet.

"The profit of destroying nature or polluting the planet is nearly always privatized, while the costs of polluting the planet or the cost of destroying ecosystems is nearly always socialized," Solheim said Monday, per Reuters, at the annual International Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

Keep reading... Show less
Soy was one of the key agricultural crops found to have decreased nutritional content when grown in a high C02 environment. Bigstockphoto

C02 and Food: We Can't Sacrifice Quality for Quantity

Bigger isn't always better. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Many anti-environmentalists throw these simple truths to the wind, along with caution.

You can see it in the deceitful realm of climate change denial. It's difficult to keep up with the constantly shifting—and debunked—denier arguments, but one common thread promoted by the likes of the Heartland Institute in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate, the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition, illustrates the point. They claim carbon dioxide is good for plants, and plants are good for people, so we should aim to pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere than we already are.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Meet the 4 Horsemen of the EPA-pocalypse

By Mary Anne Hitt

Every week, another decision that endangers our families seems to come out of Scott Pruitt's and Donald Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The latest facepalm/outrage comes in the form of confirmation hearings that start this week for four completely unacceptable nominees to critical leadership positions at EPA.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular

Trump's Pick for Top EPA Post Under Scrutiny for Deep Ties to Chemical Industry

From Scott Pruitt to Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump has notoriously appointed a slew of individuals with serious conflicts of interests with the departments they oversee.

The latest is Michael L. Dourson, Trump's pick to head the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the government's chemical safety program. Media reports reveal that the toxicologist is under intense scrutiny for his extensive ties to the chemical industry and a resumé dotted with some of the biggest names in the field: Koch Industries Inc., Chevron Corp., Dow AgroSciences, DuPont and Monsanto.

Keep reading... Show less
Researchers warn that unchecked fossil fuel emissions would raise global temperatures to catastrophic levels. Gerry Machen / Flickr

New Study: Global Warming Limit Can Still Be Achieved

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the UK have good news for the 195 nations that pledged to limit global warming to well below 2°C: it can be done. The ideal limit of no more than 1.5°C above the average temperatures for most of human history is possible.

All it requires is an immediate reduction in the combustion of fossil fuels—a reduction that will continue for the next 40 years, until the world is driven only by renewable energy.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Hurricane-damaged Barbuda. Caribbean Community / Flickr

Devastated Island Leaders: Climate Change 'A Truth Which Hits Us'

As residents in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands prepared to take cover from Hurricane Maria, representatives of island nations devastated by hurricanes made a plea to the UN for recovery funding.

In a hastily-convened special session, leaders of Barbuda, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and other nations detailed the billions of dollars needed to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and argued that the increasing impacts of climate change on island nations required a rethinking of how the UN provides humanitarian aid.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel / Facebook

National Guard Chief Highlights Climate Change as Pruitt Touts Denial on TV

Climate change could be causing storms to become "bigger, larger, more violent," underlining the need to have a robust military response to disasters across the country, the top officer of the National Guard Bureau said Tuesday.

"I do think that the climate is changing, and I do think that it is becoming more severe," Gen. Joseph Lengyel told reporters, noting the number of severe storms that have hit the U.S. in the past month. The general might want to take U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt aside for a chat on climate change and disasters: Pruitt sat down for two friendly interviews on Fox yesterday to tout his idea for a red team/blue team "debate" on climate.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox