With the falling costs of wind and solar power and existing nuclear power plants, many analysts believe the U.S. can cost-effectively and reliably operate a power grid with 80% to 90% clean electricity, but decarbonizing the last 10% to 20% will be notably more challenging. Unlike coal and nuclear, solar and wind are variable; they provide power only when the sun and wind are available. Finding sources of flexibility is the key. To learn more read, A 21st-century reinvention of the electric grid is crucial for solving the climate change crisis
- Hailed as the greatest invention of the 20th century, our now-aging grid was initially based on a combination of “base load” coal plants that operated 24 hours a day and large-scale hydropower.
- With the planet facing increasingly intense heat waves, drought, wildfires and storms, we must transition the electric grid to carbon-free wind and solar and convert most other fossil fuel users in transportation, buildings and industry to electricity.
- The Biden administration’s goal is to have a carbon emissions-free grid by 2035. One recent study found that the U.S. will need to nearly triple its 2020 growth rate for the grid to be 80% powered by clean energy by 2030.
- Converting to a 21st-century grid that is increasingly based on variable resources requires a completely new way of thinking. New sources of flexibility – the ability to keep supply and demand in balance over all time scales – are essential to enable this transition.
- There are basically three ways to accommodate the variability of wind and solar energy: use storage, deploy generation in a coordinated fashion across a wide area of the country along with more transmission, and manage electricity demand to better match the supply.
Path to 100% Perspective:
It’s no longer a question of if the world will transition to a carbon-free future, but when will it arrive? We have the technology necessary for the energy transition, but ensuring the adequate adaptability for sustainable fuels is the next step. Utilities can act now, creating strategies and investing in the right technology to make the transition to net zero possible. Government leaders must support the transition with funding and policy change.
Sustainable fuels can serve as the solution to the long-term storage problem highlighted in the article -. providing a backup power supply when there is insufficient wind or solar power available.
A process called Power to Gas (PtG) can be used to convert surplus wind and solar energy into renewable fuels, like synthetic methane and hydrogen. Those sustainable fuels can be stored in large quantities and for extended periods for long periods of use when it’s needed like in times of extreme weather. These fuels can be used to generate electricity in flexible power plants that can provide carbon neutral firm, dispatchable capacity to the grid at any time.