Study shows US could convert its economy to renewable energy without battery breakthrough

Alexander MacDonald, a co-author of the study and the recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, says studying the national weather map gave him the idea.

“I heard people talking about how renewable energy doesn’t work because it’s intermittent, and I remember saying, ‘It’s intermittent if you just have it over a really small area, but weather is big,’” MacDonald recalls. “If you look at a weather map, you see, for example, a giant high [pressure system] in the western United States and a low [pressure system] that’s windy in the east, and you can kind of deduce that if you can share the power over a large area, then it’s not intermittent. So I wanted to find out if that was true.”

MacDonald’s study, called NEWS, the National Electricity with Weather System, began six years ago. It uses a complicated optimization model based on weather forecasting to analyze the cost of energy production.

“I decided, with my team, that we would do a ‘cost minimization,’ MacDonald explains. “In other words, we would allow wind, solar and other sources, like natural gas, and even nuclear and coal, to be part of the study and we would minimize the total cost of the system, with the requirement that it supplied electric energy to 250 places over the United States every hour for a year.”

The team found that the larger the geographic area, the more effectively wind and solar can compete with other energy sources — for the exact reason MacDonald hypothesized. He explains it this way:

“In a small area, if the wind stops in part of the area, it stops over most of the area. Take the state of Kansas: if it’s not blowing on one side of Kansas, it’s probably not blowing on the other side. However, if you take the whole [lower] 48 states, you can always find places where it is pretty windy. That’s essentially what the study showed us.”

The study had another intriguing result: It showed that renewable energy can compete on price even without a major breakthrough in battery storage technology.

“We included storage as one of the things we could use,” MacDonald says. “We included transmission where we could move power over a small area or we could move it over the whole country. We basically said to this optimization [program], ‘You choose what is the best option.’”

The optimization chose transmitting power across the country as the least expensive way to use wind and solar energy. “It showed that we could have costs of electricity about the same as today, but it would reduce carbon dioxide up to 80 percent — so I think it’s a pretty important result,” MacDonald says.

There is a possible downside to the findings. In order for the system to work as efficiently as MacDonald and his team calculate, the nation would have to build massive transmission lines that would send high voltage direct current from coast to coast.

These lines can transmit “huge amounts of electric energy a long ways, but still within the cost envelope of the studies that we looked at,” MacDonald says.

But recent history has shown that people strongly oppose these powerful transmission lines passing through their neighborhoods or across their farms.

“I think people are going to have to weigh it like everything else,” MacDonald says. “If we want to preserve the future, this shows policymakers a way to do it — and it’s not for free. You might have to have overland lines; you might have to pay extra money — say, add a penny per kilowatt hour to your electric bill to have underground lines. But it gives us an option to have a low-carbon and low-cost energy economy, and we think that’s a pretty valuable possibility.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood

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New Study Finds Wind Power Can Save Midwestern Consumers Between $3 and $9.5 Billion Annually by 2020

UPDATE (Aug. 31, 2012): An updated version of the report is available here.

Adding more wind power to the electric grid could reduce wholesale market prices by more than 25 percent in the Midwest region by 2020 according to a new analysis conducted by Synapse Energy Economics on behalf of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. The report found that wind power could drive down the wholesale price of power by $3 – $10 per megawatt-hour (MWh) in the near term and up to nearly $50 per MWh by 2030. Those savings would be passed along to consumers through lowering retail electricity prices by $65-$200 each year.

The analysis also found that new transmission is needed in the region to tap wind power; however, investments in transmission are small compared to the savings they would reap, providing more than a 2 to 1 return on investment throughout various scenarios.

“This analysis illustrates a basic fact about our power system – building transmission to unleash cheaper, domestic resources makes strong economic sense,” said John Jimison, Managing Director of the Energy Future Coalition and Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. “Transmission makes up the smallest sliver of the electricity bill, but can make power markets more competitive and drive down costs for everyone. Midwestern states where some of the most valuable and abundant wind power can be found have a real opportunity to capitalize on these findings and continue investing in the infrastructure they need to facilitate additional generation of clean power.”

In order to efficiently operate wind turbines that produce lower-priced power, the Midwest must invest in transmission infrastructure to move this electricity from where it is produced to where it is used. Synapse found that building out the transmission system will have a small impact on retail rates – i.e., an increase of approximately 0.1 to 0.5 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2021, but the modest increase would be dramatically offset by the greater price savings achieved from adding wind generation to the electric system.

For more information, please follow these links:

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U.S. Department of Energy Releases Strategic Plan

The U.S. Department of Energy released its 2011 Strategic Plan on Wednesday, May 10th. The plan is a comprehensive roadmap for America’s energy future that examines the need to invest in the United States’ energy infrastructure to transition away from the fossil fuels of the past to the clean, renewable fuels of the future. The plan specifically mentions the need to work towards President Obama’s stated goals of:

  • Reducing energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 and 83% by 2050 (from a 2005 baseline);
  • Generating 80% of America’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035; and
  • Putting one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

“There is compelling evidence that carbon-dioxide emissions from human activities are adversely affecting the climate,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu writes in the introduction. “Any path close to ‘business as usual’ will imperil future generations with dangerous and unacceptable economic, social, and environmental risks. The conventional use of fossil fuels is a major source of these emissions… As part of prudent risk management, our responsibility to future generations is to eliminate most of our carbon emissions and transition to a sustainable energy future.”

To accomplish these goals, significant investments in the U.S. electric power grid are needed. According to the Strategic Plan, the Department of Energy is partnering with the electric transmission industry to study and improve the way the grid operates by installing more than 1,000 synchrophaser measurement units by 2013, installing 26 million smart meters by 2013, and reducing the cost of utility-scale power storage by 30% over the next four years. The report also details efforts to better integrate variable renewable resources into the grid, a significant, but not insurmountable, obstacle to large-scale renewable energy deployment.

To view the report, click here.

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Report Details Job Benefits of New Transmission Lines

A new report released today by WIRES (Working Group for Investment in Reliable and Economic electric Systems), in conjunction with the Brattle Group, outlines the economic benefits to increased investment in transmission infrastructure projects in the United States and Canada.

The analysis finds that needed investments in the U.S. electric grid could reach $12-$16 billion annually (C$5 billion annually in Canada) between 2010 and 2030, and spur an additional $30-$40 billion in annual economic activity. This investment would create 150,000-200,000 new full-time jobs over in each of the next 20 years, as well as 20,000-50,000 jobs in Canada. In addition, building these transmission lines would unlock location-constrained renewable energy, creating an additional 130,000-250,000 jobs in the renewable energy industry.

The report can be found here.

“This report provides strong evidence that meeting the grid’s challenges – including delivery of power from remote renewable generation to load centers far away – is good for the economy and will help create jobs,” said WIRES President Jolly Hayden, Vice President of Transmission Development at NextEra Energy Resources. “Strengthening the transmission grid will also address major reliability issues, reduce production costs, enhance competition for customers in wholesale power markets, contribute to fuel diversity, and help reduce wholesale power prices. Brattle’s analysis should give policy makers confidence that the benefits will exceed the costs.”

However, a number of policy barriers must be overcome before these benefits are realized, including how to pay for, plan, and permit new transmission lines. According to Jolly Hayden, “We are not looking to government to do anything but take a fresh look at how the grid is planned, permitted, and paid for today under procedures that pre-date the emergence of modern electric generation technology and regional power markets. Although transmission investment is on the rise, there is plenty of evidence that good projects are falling victim to duplication and delay, lack of regional coordination, and parochial interests. That means the economy suffers too. If regulatory risk can be diminished, private capital will do the rest. Today, many utilities, developers, and technology firms are trying — often in vain — to participate in strengthening our energy infrastructure.”

To download the WIRES analysis, click here.