The biggest argument against renewable energy has always been: what if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow? Well, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) just published a study answering that question. Turns out the question should really be, what if our grid doesn’t work? The conclusion of NREL’s study is that even with intermittent wind and sunshine the western United States could power the grid with up to 35% of needed energy by 2017 without major infrastructure changes. Their solution is a more effective power grid and open regional communications.
The NREL study reveals that powering the grid with 35% renewable energy by 2017 — 5% solar and 30% wind — is completely feasible and will only require changes in standard operating procedure. The major issue at hand is the general assumption that with the variability of renewable energy we would need coal-fired power plants to back up the system when supply is low — which pretty much negates the cleanliness of wind or solar power. NREL says that won’t be needed, because if we can alter the way we spread the power around and coordinate between regions we could successfully eliminate the need for emissions-spewing power plants to keep us safe from a blackout.
“When you coordinate the operations between utilities across a large geographic area, you decrease the effect of the variability of wind and solar energy sources, mitigating the unpredictability of Mother Nature,” noted Dr. Debra Lew, NREL project manager for the study. As part of the stimulus — as we’ve reported — President Obama focused $3.4 billion dollars on creating the US power grid 2.0. $26 million of that chunk of change is going into further study of the Western transmission infrastructure. This research will help states, utilities and grid operators get ready for energy demand increases, renewable energy increases and Smart Grid technologies. If NREL is right — which we’re pretty positive they are — it looks like a smarter grid is headed our way and its going to be squeaky clean.