Solar- and Wind- based electricity is clean and renewable, offering a great solution for both Climate and Fossil Fuel Availability problems. But both sources are intermittent, meaning they don’t provide 24 hours a day, and therefore adopting renewable electricity in a big way requires changes in the electricity production/consumption system. For example in some areas like California there’s enough solar production during the day to drastically reduce fossil fuel electricity production, but when the sun sets the utility companies have to rapidly ramp that up to keep the lights on in the evening. That problem has been described as “The Duck Curve”, and the solution isn’t as insurmountable as some make it out to be. In California and some other areas, technology development is underway meant to orchestrate electricity production, electricity storage, and electricity consumption, to time-shift some renewable electricity production from daytime to night-time, and to time-shift some electricity consumption to the daytime.
Today, leading thinker Richard Heinberg wrote a blog post about a claimed controversy in renewable electricity. Namely that “source intermittency is indeed a serious problem, and solving it becomes more expensive and technically challenging as solar-wind generation approaches 100 percent of all electricity produced.” Indeed, the intermittency of certain sources is a challenge, and as the rate of adoption increases the problem is more severe. But that’s an engineering problem of designing the system to accommodate those facts.
The supposed controversy Heinberg points at are proposals by Stanford Univ Professor Marc Jacobsen. Jacobsen has for years worked on plans for how the USA could power all its cars and everything else off renewable electricity sources. Jacobsen’s plans include a system of solar/wind/hydroelectric production, with hydrogen based energy storage to make up for intermittency. Those are great sources of electricity, much better than the prevailing fossil fuel paradigm.
A big key to solving the intermittency problem is electricity/energy storage systems. In theory, it’s possible to power the entire country solely with solar+wind systems IF there is enough energy storage systems. An example of the paradigm was flown around the world, the Solar Impulse solar/electric airplane. That airplane could fly for several days at a time, limited only by pilot endurance and the weather. It worked by having enough solar panels in the wing surfaces to collect enough electricity to not only fly all day long, but to store enough electricity in battery packs to fly all night long.
Our cities could be powered the same way – namely, build solar+wind electricity production systems to supply enough electricity to not only keep the city running all day long, but to produce enough excess that’s stored in electricity storage systems to power the city through the night. The question is whether it’s feasible to electricity storage systems up to the size required.
Fortunately it’s not necessary to scale electricity storage NOW to the size required so that solar+wind+storage supplies 100% of our electricity needs. Instead it’s enough to solve for the immediate problem, the Duck Curve, and to make big reductions in fossil fuel electricity production. Over time the technologies will develop to produce the eventual solution.
Jacobsen’s idea is to rely on hydrogen based energy storage. “Hydrogen” means “fuel cells”, and today the Hydrogen Economy is a big myth. The biggest problem with the current hydrogen supplies is the source — hydrogen is primarily extracted from natural gas, and is nowhere near as clean as just burning the natural gas. But Jacobsen will have instead suggested using excess solar+wind power to convert water to hydrogen, store the hydrogen, and at night using the hydrogen to produce electricity via fuel cells. Sourcing hydrogen that way is as clean as it gets, and is a feasible way to implement the solar+wind+storage paradigm.
According to Heinberg the problem is too big. Indeed, if we try to wave a magic wand and replace the entire fossil fuel system overnight that is a big enormous problem. What’s happening instead is to replace chunks of the fossil fuel system as the technologies develop.
For example, I’ve written previously about work underway in California and elsewhere developing technology to orchestrate electricity production and consumption and storage across the electric grid. The plan is exactly what I wrote earlier.
What Heinberg suggests is a second key element to solving the intermittency problem and moving to a 100% renewable energy system. Energy Efficiency.
If the total energy consumption were to decrease on a per-capita basis, then the required energy storage system would be much smaller, and the whole problem with be that much more solvable.
Americans have the highest rate of energy consumption per person in the world. Is this a good idea? No. There are lots of countries where the people live very well on a much lower energy consumption. If we collectively reduced energy consumption, energy production would decrease, and the whole complex of climate and environmental problems would reduce, giving us more time to create the solution we need (100% renewable energy).
The phrase “Powerdown” in the title refers to the planned reduction in energy consumption.
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