Path to Renewables May be Easier than Thought

January 27, 2016


An interesting and tense moment at December’s American Geophysical Union conference came with an all star panel of climate scientists and energy experts, and clear lines were drawn between the “must have nuclear’ faction, lead by James Hansen, and the “renewables can do it” faction, represented by Mark Jacobson of Stanford – who I interviewed the same day – more on that soon.

New research seems to support Jacobson.


Analysts have long argued that nations aiming to use wind and solar power to curb emissions from fossil fuel burning would first have to invest heavily in new technologies to store electricity produced by these intermittent sources—after all, the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing. But a study out today suggests that the United States could, at least in theory, use new high-voltage power lines to move renewable power across the nation, and essentially eliminate the need to add new storage capacity.

This improved national grid, based on existing technologies, could enable utilities to cut power-sector carbon dioxide emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2030 without boosting power prices, researchers report today in Nature Climate Change.

The findings come on the heels of the Paris climate agreement, in which the United States pledged to cut its national emissions by up to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. About 40% of U.S. emissions come from the power sector, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released rules that task states with reducing power-sector emissions. States can choose from a menu of strategies, EPA says, such as boosting renewable energy use.

But some observers wonder whether the U.S. power grid can rise to the renewables challenge. The grid is divided into several regional grids or “interconnections,” which contain smaller subdivisions. Because regions experience both sunless and windless periods, energy planners and experts have long believed that a wind- and solar-dominated grid would need to store some power for later use. The problem is that large-scale storage technologies haven’t been commercially realistic.

Alex MacDonald, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C., researcher, was familiar with that problem. But he realized that researchers hadn’t explored all the potential solutions. For instance, meteorological data suggest that wind is always blowing somewhere in the United States, MacDonald says. So, although renewable energy output might be intermittent on a regional scale, it would have a more constant flow at a national scale. MacDonald wondered whether the U.S. grid might be able to overcome intermittency problems if it added high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) transmission lines—which suffer less energy loss than do traditional alternating-current transmission lines—to connect regional grids, so that power could be moved to where it was needed.


The study also suggests the U.S. may make the transition without heavy investment in energy-storage technologies, which are seen by some as essential for helping to smooth out the intermittent flows from wind and solar farms.

Instead, the Nature research, using a computer model to simulate the U.S. electric system in 2030, found a reliable grid can be built using existing technology — if the country also invests in better transmission lines and other technology to carry power long distances.

Key to the transition would be a national network of high-voltage, direct-current power lines, capable of connecting power supplies in areas with favorable weather to regions with the most demand, according to the study by scientists with the university and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It looks a lot like an interstate highway system for electrons,” said co-author Alexander MacDonald, a recently retired NOAA scientist. “You can pipe the power around in real-time and essentially have electricity that’s the same cost as today.”

The research “provides confidence” that nations can make the pollution cuts they promised last year at an international climate summit in Paris, Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson said in an commentary accompanying the study.

“The study pushes the envelope to show that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost,” said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The goals of the Paris agreement are within reach.”


47 Responses to “Path to Renewables May be Easier than Thought”

  1. Another point about storage is that having storage on our current grid – would be quite beneficial. So, we can build storage capacity over time, and improve the grid – even as we build up renewable energy generation.

    Germany has found that they don’t need storage as much as they thought they would.

    • toddinnorway Says:

      Germany and Norway will be connected by a 1400 MW DC cable to be completed around 2020. Germany will then use the vast hydroelectric power system in Norway/Sweden as a key component in grid balancing and short-term, grid-scale energy storage.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Aren’t Norway and the Netherlands already connected? It’s wonderful that Norway has been blessed with the ability to generate nearly all of its electricity with hydro-power. How environmentally “conscious” of that beautiful little country of barely 5 million people.

        And anyone like Todd who would hold out Norway as an example of anything other than capitalistic hypocrisy is a wishful thinker and motivated reasoner of the highest order. Norway is near the top of the lists for both oil exports and natural gas exports, and thereby contributes significantly to the global CO2 load. Yep, export fossil fuels and import money—-then pat yourself on the back because your electricity is “clean”.

  2. kap55 Says:

    Several important points. First, this study (MacDonald et al.), unlike Jacobson, is not nuclear-free. It retains all existing nuclear and hydro, and indeed uses nuclear for load-following when needed.

    Second, and more important by far, is that both this study and Jacobson rely on Bahrman (2007, 2008) for HVDC costs, here quoted at $701/MW-mile. But the most recently completed HVDC lines in North America, the East Alberta and West Alberta lines, came in with actual real-world costs nearly ten times higher than that ($1.7 billion and $1.8 billion for 1 GW lines of 217 and 300 miles respectively.) Since the lowest-cost plans here are the “big-grid” national plans that rely heavily on HVDC, this is a big deal. At that cost, it’s cheaper to build a nuclear plant next door than to transmit wind power 700 miles.

    Finally, it is important to note that neither MacDonald nor Jacobson was willing to investigate the cost implications of increased nuclear in their non-fossil grids. One really has to wonder what the all-renewable crowd is afraid of discovering. As far as I know, the only similar study that has deigned to allow nuclear a place at the table (the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project) found that the median high-renewable scenario was about four times more expensive than the median high-nuclear scenario.

  3. indy222 Says:

    Thanks Kap. There are others who have seen some gaping credibility issues with Jacobson’s work. A climate scientist I talked to expressed constant irritation at how Jacobson’s pieces don’t read like hard science, but like ad copy. More seriously, read this look at the numbers and costs of the real world vs claims by Jacobson et al.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      And yet paper after paper by Jacobson – who is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and Director of its Atmosphere and Energy Program – are published after peer review, even though your proof source – a physicist with a blog- says his calculations are off by 3 orders of magnitude….

      Gosh – who to believe?!?

      This is the internet at its worst ( and don’t for a minute think I am not guilty as hell of doing the exact same thing)- blithely sloughing off peer-reviewed work with the use of the blog comments of some guy, and with some character assassination thrown in just for spice.

      Although I doubt it- maybe Jacobson IS wrong. But the proper place for critique is in the peer-reviewed literature. Bring it on – I am just thrilled that we are finally starting to talk about the nuts and bolts of solutions – and not wasting more time arguing with mendacious morons about facts.

      • kap55 Says:

        Peer-review is a great way to discover the truth, but the market is another great way to discover the truth. And so far, the market is saying that peer-review is wrong, and by a lot. Gosh – who to believe, when it comes to cost?

        Meanwhile, for those wedded to peer-review, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project report was peer-reviewed. Check out figure 12 on page 24.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          So, your argument is that the free market is a perfect operator which gives instant certification of best approaches for solving AGW.

          Mathematics can not even imagine a number large enough to describe the amount of fail in your argument.

          • j4zonian Says:

            I don’t know how you can think that way, Gb. The free market has done so well this far…

          • kap55 Says:

            So, your argument is that when they built a powerline and it cost 10 times more than the academics said they thought it should, then they must have been bad engineers?

  4. Bill Schutt Says:

    If I were a researcher and I thoroughly researched the viability of the “Renewable Energy Alone” option, I might conclude that I was confident that it would work. Nonetheless, I would feel obliged to qualify by saying that “given the large number of eminent scientists who remain doubtful, the prudent thing would be to pursue both renewable and nuclear energy at this time.”

    Having said that, I also conclude that the “Renewable Energy Alone” idea is a bit like creationism. Creationists claim that their belief has nothing to do their religious belief, nonetheless, 100% of creationists are religious fundamentalists. Similarly, “Renewable Energy Alone” believers will claim that their belief has nothing with being anti-nuclear, nonetheless, 100% of “Renewable Energy Aloners”are anti-nuclear fundamentalists.

    The fact, as far as I can tell, no scientist agnostic about energy solutions has ever supported the “Renewable Energy Aloners” is as damming as the fact no secular scientist has ever supported creationism.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “…the large number of eminent scientists who remain doubtful…”

      The fact is that nobody on the planet knows with any certainty whether renewables alone will work. Doubt is properly the default position. How could it not be with such a protean and inchoate field? And the fact is – most, if not all, of the doubters are not well-informed.

      Because very few people are even working on the nuts and bolts of the problem and even less are writing about it. Which is why it is very important not to accept blithe dismissals and slurs against the two most prominent voices who are doing this truly difficult work and writing about it – Jacobson & Delucchi.

      I have been making an ass of myself going around the internet and begging people interested in AGW to stop arguing with liars and morons about facts, and to start asking more important questions. It’s fracking frustrating to be the hall monitor.

      Look at, for example, the Deltoid blog. It has essentially zero original writing and yet a very erudite commentariat. It’s just an open thread every month where – for more than a decade(?) – these people argue with liars and morons about facts, the same facts over and over and over. They are mesmerized with snark. They say they do more productive things elsewhere…. . Meanwhile, we don’t know the answers to very basic questions. And all the while the conversation we ARE having around the world is directed by capitalists.

      Look at this blog. How many posts are about disputing liars and morons? About three quarters of them, I would guess. Peter is one of the good guys – he is trying very had to accomplish something important. Arguing about facts is easy to write about, though. I complain about this, but who can blame him? We still (incredibly even after two solid decades of thinking about AGW) don’t even know what questions are the most important.

  5. Lionel Smith Says:

    It’s just an open thread every month where – for more than a decade(?)

    Something of an exaggeration there. Sure the last couple of years have seen a monthly open thread but before that they were occasional injections they being given numbers.

    Some of the other threads were subject to very firm debate and many usefull to the rest of us links elsewhere. Particularly memorable were those threads in which the late Tim Curtin was involved, others were much extended by a certain Brad Keyes who loved to twist statements in lawyerly fashion.

    And the reason for arguing with the regular trolls there is not so much to convince them but to show lurkers how illogical and/or ignorant these trolls are. Also many useful links pop up which helps with the understanding of the rest of us.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      One has to ask, though, what has been the harvest of two decades of engaging deniers? 12 lurkers inspired to find answers at Sceptical Science? A lot of commentators there can actually do maths, actually know a lot about science. They have wasted thousands of hours there.

      Because I think we bloody well know how bad AGW is, and have for some time. The information we need to compel our society into rational action was evident at least a decade ago. What we need now are solutions. And demands for solutions. A whole lotta thought about solutions. Right now we got two guys – Jacobson and Delucchi.

      Talented scientifically-involved people should be talking about renewable energy applications, innovations, financing, synergies, philosophies, social justice, etc – whatever suits them and is useful. Not arguing with the same cast of characters with ever-evolving snarkmanship.

      Frankly, I don’t even have the stomach to support a lot of the descriptive science that is going on. Do we really need to document every snowflake melting, so to speak?

      You know, if we are really unlucky, we are going to unlock a trillion tons too much frozen methane and civilization, and perhaps the human race, is over. If what is needed is a “war-time” shift, then some of our best and brightest should be making artillery shells instead of working in a bookstore, shouldn’t they?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Well said. I have had the same thoughts. Why do we spend so much time parsing data (that is always “trending” but never “conclusive”—“more study and better models needed, etc…”)—-and ignoring the real problem?

        The real problem is not with the science, but with the failings of the human species. We are simply not equipped with the right kind of brainpower to get us out of the mess that our brainpower has created. And I’m not speaking of only AGW, which is only one symptom of our inadequacy.

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