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Will renewables break the power grid or save it?
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Will renewables break the power grid or save it?

The carbon-free promise of solar and wind teeters on high voltage wires.
March 3, 2024

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Adjusting for inflation, a barrel of oil today costs around the same as it did in the 1970s Oil Crisis. Solar photovoltaic modules over the same period now cost 500 times less—and prices are still falling, about 30% last year. So why can’t we kick the fossil fuel habit? One answer is the grid—in the U.S.,200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that span mountains, plains and rivers, and another five million miles of cables delivering electricity to our homes. That grid was designed for a few fossil fuel power plants that can be brought online at the flip of a switch. A low-carbon future looks very different—thousands of solar and wind farms flicking on and off as nature allows. Now the question is: Can we reinvent some of the biggest infrastructure humanity has ever built—before it breaks us?

 

• • •

Today’s Grid Is Toast

1.  The long line to build long lines. Solar farms are almost always much smaller than the fossil fuel power stations they replace, and spread out over a much wider area. According to energy consultancy Thunder Said, replacing a single typical coal plant requires about 100 solar plants—and thus 100 new grid connections. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported last year that there were nearly 10,000 renewable projects, accounting for 1250 gigawatts of capacity, awaiting interconnection to grids in the US alone. And it’s getting worse. Projects now take around five years to break ground, compared to three years in 2015 and less than two in 2008.

2.  Slow out of the starting gate. To hit the White House’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035, up to 80% of electricity generation will have to come from wind and solar (up from just 17% last year). That would mean almost tripling transmission capacity in the US by adding up to 10,000 miles of high-capacity lines annually at a cost of up to $740 billion, according to a sobering analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. How are we doing? In 2022, the US built just 670 miles of transmission lines, of which precisely zero miles were high capacity.

3.  Square solar panels in round grid holes. Because wind and solar projects are naturally intermittent, they can cause instabilities in the grid and even blackouts if dropped into the grid without changes. To stabilize the system, utilities are often forced to spin up polluting gas power stations, buy power from neighboring regions, or invest in expensive energy storage. “The pace of growth is breaking us,” said the executive director of renewables origination at a Baltimore-based utility, Constellation Energy, earlier this month. And that’s on top of political hurdles. US Today estimates that 15% of counties in America have some impediment to new utility-scale wind and solar energy, ranging from onerous zoning restrictions to outright bans. 

 

• • •

A Few Smart Moves Could Untangle The Mess

1.  Recycling and reconductoring. But there is a way to supercharge the grid without new transmission lines. Traditional high voltage power lines are composed of a structural steel core surrounded by conductive aluminum strands. “Reconductoring” involves replacing the steel core with a stronger, lighter carbon fiber composite, and using some of the weight savings to add extra aluminum. The result? Transmission lines that can double their capacity and halve their losses, without the time-sucking permitting paperwork of starting from scratch. Aluminum from the older lines can even be recycled in the newer cables. According to Emilia Chojkiewicz at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reconductoring can meet over 80% of the long-distance transmission needs to meet almost all the clean energy goals by 2035—and bring substantial cost savings. Belgium and the Netherlands are already embarking on national reconductoring projects.

Added electric grid capacity with reconductoring

2.  Slicing up the grid. When a few natural gas power plants in Texas unexpectedly froze due to icy weather in 2021, millions of homes were without power for days and hundreds of people died. Such extreme weather events will become more frequent in the years ahead. But if a region uses many distributed solar, wind or other renewable generators instead, utilities can split the grid into partitions that can function independently—a technique called sectionalization. Sectionalization not only adds resilience and reliability, it can also improve efficiency and cybersecurity, and lower electricity prices for consumers.

3.  Virtual power plants rather than real carbon. Electrification non-profit Rewiring America is bullish on the concept of virtual power plants—a collection of distributed energy resources that can feed power back into the grid when demand is high. A lot of the buzz is about using electric vehicle batteries, with a Nature paper last year from Dutch scientists predicting that EVs alone could satisfy short-term storage needs by 2030. Heat pumps, water heaters and smart thermostats could also contribute, with the help of AI. Rewiring America notes that virtual power plants can add capacity at around half the cost of gas plants and grid-scale batteries.

 

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1.  Transcontinental grids. If you want cheap, green electricity, think really big, suggests a new report. Connecting electricity grids not just between states and countries but between continents could cut prices by up to 50% by balancing the supply and demand for renewable power worldwide.

2.  Wireless power transmission. It sounds like science fiction, but beaming power wirelessly over long distances dates back to Nikola Tesla in the late 19th century. A modern spin on the idea comes from New Zealand start-up Emrod, which is developing a system for connecting remote wind farms to the grid without physical lines and even beaming power down from orbiting solar satellites.

3.  Green vs gray in DC. House Democrats and Republicans have different ideas of energy reform, reports The Hill. Republicans are seeking to make it easier to drill for oil and gas, and to repeal incentives for renewables. Democrats would like to pre-approve routes for transmission lines and give projects a 30% tax credit. At stake are future regional and interregional projects that could boost renewables and cut prices

Top image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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