PBS Terra: Can We Firm the Grid with Renewables?

April 2, 2023

There is no universe where the United States remains a global technological leader without upgrading our decrepit, approaching-developing-world-statis electric grid.
So, why not restore it with renewables in mind?
And while I’m asking, can we also incentivize microgrids, more rooftop generation, and community solar?

What I learned:

Battery storage already capable of providing 7-8 percent of California’s electricity – equal to the output of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.
Rooftop solar is not even close to enough to cover our grid needs – but it can be a significant fraction. 20 percent estimated here.

100 percent water/wind/solar possible – some discussion over costs. As always, Mark Jacobson of Stanford is on the leading edge of the all-renewable camp. Mark draws a lot of criticism, but his modeling from 15 years ago was closer to what we see today than most of the naysayers.

Below, researchers Amol Phadke and Jonathan Koomey talk about strategies to firm the grid on the way to full renewables. (Koomey is a Stanford lecturer, and Phadke was a lead author of a key paper on “90 Percent Renewables by 2035”.


16 Responses to “PBS Terra: Can We Firm the Grid with Renewables?”

  1. The first video has Mark Jacobson doing what he’s good at — being a PR flack. His energy modeling work is more like public relations and salesmanship than analysis. He puts wind, solar and batteries in the best possible light without a hint of any of the small print that would represent reality. But when it comes to nuclear he’ll include anything that can conceivably be construed as a flaw.

    Starting five minutes into this video you can hear Mark Nelson give a (much too kind) summary of Jacobson’s energy modeling. At twelve minutes, he explains the concept of a copper plate assumption:

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “The first video has Mark Jacobson doing what he’s good at — being a PR flack. His energy modeling work is more like public relations and salesmanship than analysis. “

      Really, Mike – is that so?

      Then it should be easy for you to explain to us in simple terms exactly what is going on in Figure 3 in his recent peer-reviewed paper below. Should be an easy job for someone like yourself, so obviously familiar with the shortcomings of his work.

      Click to access 21-USStatesPaper.pdf

      • I’ll be happy to distill what’s happening in those impenetrable graphs he’s bamboozled his audience with. He’s tracked a simulation that starts in 2050 after Texas has seamlessly acquired all the mined minerals and implemented his massive rebuild of their energy infrastructure. I note the bottom time series graph is on a log scale so that he can hide the spikiness of the solar. I also note the “solar PV+CSP” which means by 2050 Texas will have brought the dying giant concentrating mirror fields (as shown in the movie Planet of the Humans) back to life. I wonder how many of the 387 100 MW ones will be retained from his original New York plan?

        • greenman3610 Says:

          anyone citing Michael Moore as their energy expert resource needs to stand down.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          So, your objection is that Texas could not possibly build the solar by 2050? That’s curious.

          As far as being a PR hack, with “no analysis” the paper belies your baseless assertions. Perhaps you believe the same about the many other researchers who verified his analyses independently? Which includes the IPCC, and, to name just a few:

          Bogdanov, Dmitrii; Gulagi, Ashish; Fasihi, Mahdi; Breyer, Christian (1 February 2021). “Full energy sector transition towards 100% renewable energy supply: Integrating power, heat, transport and industry sectors including desalination”. Applied Energy. 283: 116273. doi:10.1016/j.apenergy.2020.116273. ISSN 0306-2619.

          Teske, Sven, ed. (2019). Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-05843-2. ISBN 978-3-030-05842-5. S2CID 198078901.
          “Cheap, safe 100% renewable energy possible before 2050, says Finnish uni study”. Yle Uutiset. 12 April 2019. Retrieved 18 June 2021.

          Gulagi, Ashish; Alcanzare, Myron; Bogdanov, Dmitrii; Esparcia, Eugene; Ocon, Joey; Breyer, Christian (1 July 2021). “Transition pathway towards 100% renewable energy across the sectors of power, heat, transport, and desalination for the Philippines”. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 144: 110934. doi:10.1016/j.rser.2021.110934. ISSN 1364-0321.

          Hansen, Kenneth; et al. (2019). “Status and perspectives on 100% renewable energy systems”. Energy. 175: 471–480. doi:10.1016/j.energy.2019.03.092.

          Interestingly, this 2022 review article [https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/9837910] states that:

          “According to a review of the 181 peer-reviewed papers on 100% renewable energy that were published until 2018, “[t]he great majority of all publications highlights the technical feasibility and economic viability of 100% RE systems.”


          “… most of the literature in the field is that 100% renewables is feasible worldwide at low cost.”

          So while you assert that Jacobson is a PR hack who bamboozles people with “impenetrable graphs”, it turns out the there is a large body of research – mostly done by people not named Jacobson – which validates his work. Are they all bamboozling PR hacks, also, Mike?


          • First I want to point out that the Hansen in Hansen, Kenneth; et al. (2019) is NOT James Hansen. It’s Kenneth Hansen, Christian Breyer and Henrik Lund. Christian Breyer’s name is well known for these kind of studies. There’s a clique of these guys who review and quote each others studies. If these guys really want to prove their points, they should go on Decouple or Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry podcast. But they’d rather stay in their bubble and wait for history to pass them by.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            You really should have looked at that last graphic before you posted, Mike

          • That growing light blue band is probably their students.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            I’m actually much less impressed by IPCC as a source of grid resiliency analysis than I am by groups like the IEEE* which can address real-world constraints like materials costs, equipment vendors, project scheduling, budgeting, etc.

            Some of the climate experts have made eye-rollingly naive assumptions about the nature of the energy transition, with no clear appreciation of what the hard problems are.

            *Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (“I triple E”).
            Disclaimer: My father and most of his buddies were white shirt, pocket protector slide rule EEs, and the family is chock full of infrastructure nerds that appreciate that the difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than it is in theory.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            [I think this can produce a bigger image.]

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            On the other hand, pocket-protector EE’s also come to mind as a particularly over-represented phalanx of the AGW Denial Brigade! :>D

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The models are using a forecast of increasing bidirectional grid design, a fundamental mechanism in smart grids. The issue all along is in the sophistication of the power flow management software that pretty much relies on such design.

      In any case, the issue is not to implement theoretical “copper plate” ability in every remote pocket of the US, but on the backbones and major connectors. That pretty much achieves the RE (decarbonization) goal.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Jacobson’s papers seem to all include provisos about possible flaws, and the first one is that his model presumes a perfectly-functioning smart grid. I have no idea how far away from that perfect grid we are currently, nor what it would take to get us close to that ideal, but I would guess it would only take money.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Like every other massively distributed project, including railroads, highways, pre-cellular telephony, cable TV, computer networks, etc., you build starting with the highest demand and/or cheapest portions, and spread from there. Everyone acknowledges that the grid needs major maintenance and upgrading, so it would be exceptionally boneheaded not to put in modern electrical control technology* while we’re doing it.

          I think of the sociopolitical landscape (NIMBY, political, jurisdictional) as having its own analogous mountains to cut through or chasms to bridge. Note that Texas put in a $7b transmission line to bring remote abundant wind power in the west to its large cities further east. The “jobs jobs jobs” argument works just as well with RE build-out as it does with pipelines.

          Switch on happened in 2013:

          *In the early days of controller tech, there was a major vulnerability problem from sites installing networked devices without changing the default password. Nowadays, modern devices (like home routers and cable modems) are shipped with different starting passwords or access codes. This won’t prevent higher-level network hacking, as with the 2021 Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack.

  2. […] I try to be on my best behavior, but once in a while I can’t help myself and go off on a rant trashing Mark Jacobson. He’s been very good about letting me comment […]

  3. […] I try to be on my best behavior, but once in a while I can’t help myself and go off on a rant trashing Mark Jacobson. He’s been very good about letting me comment […]

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