Will renewable energies destabilize the grid? Yale 360 has the answer.
A recent issue of Yale 360 tackles the lies, distortions and half-truths that surround the question of whether renewables can provide a reliable source of electricity at all times or whether they require “base load” thermal generation capacity to be reliable. We all vividly remember the so-called governor of Texas foaming at the mouth after a severe cold snap knocked out that state’s power grid in 2021. He blamed the problem on the state having too much renewable energy.
Amory Lovins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, debunks these misconceptions with a tool that’s freely available to everyone: data. He uses it to explode 3 myths about renewable energy and the network.
Myth #1: A grid based on renewable energy is unreliable
Lovins says the metric most often used to describe network reliability is the average duration of power outages experienced by each customer over the course of a year, a metric known as the Average Outage Duration Index. of the system or SAIDI, Germany is often cited as an example of a country with an unstable grid. It gets about half of its electricity from renewables. Yet its grid is one of the most reliable with an SAIDI of just 0.25 hours in 2020. The United States, where renewables and nuclear power each provide around 20% of electricity, had a five times that of Germany, i.e. 1.28 hours in 2020.
Since 2006, the share of renewable energy in Germany’s electricity production has almost quadrupled, while its rate of blackouts has been cut by almost half. Similarly, the Texas grid has become more stable, with its wind capacity increasing sixfold between 2007 and 2020. Today, Texas generates more wind power – about one-fifth of its total electricity – than any other state in the United States. Data shows that renewables increase grid reliability, despite what the oil and gas lobby would have us believe.
Myth #2: Fossil fuels are needed to stabilize the grid
Once again, the data belies this popular myth. Between 2010 and 2020, German generation from fossil fuels decreased by 130.9 TWh and nuclear generation decreased by 76.3 TWh. These decreases were offset by 149.5 TWh of renewable energy. An additional 38 TWh were saved through energy saving strategies. As we saw above, through all these changes, the network in Germany has become more stable, not less. By 2020, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions had fallen by 42.3% from their 1990 levels, exceeding the 40% target set in 2007. Carbon dioxide emissions from the sector alone of electricity increased from 315 million tonnes in 2010 to 185 million tonnes in 2020.
In Japan, following multiple reactor meltdowns in Fukushima, more than 40 nuclear reactors have shut down permanently or indefinitely without significantly increasing fossil fuel generation or greenhouse gas emissions, Lovins reports. Electricity savings and renewables make up for almost all of the loss, despite policies that have removed renewables.
Myth #3: Renewables cannot meet demand 24/7
It’s a favorite topic of the Fake News crowd and a disgraced ex-president and it’s pure grade A baloney. Lovins points out that ALL production sources are offline at times, either due to weather emergencies or due to routine maintenance. None works all day, every day, all year. All sources of electrical power will be unavailable at some time.
Network managers have to deal with this reality, just as they have to deal with fluctuating demand. The influx of greater amounts of renewable energy does not change this reality, although the way it handles variability and uncertainty changes.
Hydropower fluctuates with the amount of water available. Coal and methane supplies are not 100% reliable. Many outages in Texas in 2021 were caused by the refusal to start diesel generators used by power pipelines. French nuclear facilities were shut down for an average of 96.2 days in 2019 due to “scheduled” or “forced” unavailability. This figure rose to 115.5 days in 2020. After a blackout in the northeastern states of the United States in 2003, sudden shutdowns of nuclear generators left nine reactors producing almost no energy. electricity for several days. Many took two weeks to return to full production.
Modern network operators (except in Texas where network operations are based on ideology rather than data) emphasize diversity and flexibility rather than nominally “baseload” generation sources. stable but less flexible. Diversified renewable portfolios do not fail as massively, sustainably, or unpredictably as large thermal power plants. All thermal power plants are offline 7 to 12 percent of the time, Lovins says.
The mission of a grid
The purpose of a power grid is not just to transmit and distribute electricity based on fluctuations in demand. It must also manage the intermittency of traditional fossil and nuclear power plants. Similarly, the grid can quickly back up wind and solar variations with other renewables, a task that has become easier with more accurate forecasting of weather conditions and wind speeds. This, in turn, enables better forecasting of the production of various renewable energy sources.
Local or on-site renewables are even more resilient because they largely or entirely bypass the grid, where nearly all blackouts begin. Modern power electronics have run South Australia’s billion watt grid on just sun and wind for days, with no coal, no hydro, no nuclear and just the production of natural gas from 4, 4% required by the network regulator. The Hornsdale battery provided by Tesla played an important role in making this possible.
Energy storage, whether through batteries, compressed air, hydropower or other means, is a common topic in Clean Technica. There is a general belief that the transition to renewable energy depends on it. But there are other, less expensive, carbon-free ways to handle variable renewables besides giant batteries, suggests Lovins.
The first and most important is energy efficiency, which reduces demand, especially during peak usage times. Buildings that are more efficient need less heating or cooling and change their temperature more slowly so they can run longer on their own thermal capacity and thus maintain comfort with less energy, especially during periods peak.
A second option is demand flexibility or demand response, which allows utility companies to compensate customers who reduce the amount of electricity they use when called upon. This usually happens automatically and imperceptibly. New technologies such as smart circuit breaker panels can allow this to happen automatically with little noticeable effect on customers. Many internet EV chargers can also adjust the amount of electricity they provide or move charging times to off-peak hours when demand on the grid is low.
A recent study found that the United States has 200 gigawatts of cost-effective load flexibility potential that could be realized by 2030. In fact, recent power outages in California highlight the need for a demand response, prompting the California Public Utilities Commission to create the Emergency Load Reduction Program to build on previous demand response efforts.
Another option for stabilizing the grid as renewable energy production increases is diversity, both geographical and technological – onshore and offshore wind, solar panels, solar thermal, geothermal, hydro pumping, municipal waste burning, industrial or agricultural. There are even new ideas like vertical bifacial solar panels and offshore floating solar to complement renewable energy portfolios. The idea is simple: if one of these sources, in a place, does not produce electricity at a given time, there is a good chance that others will.
Vehicle-to-grid technology could become an important part of the grid stabilization process. Ford is already seeing renewed interest in V2G as it has teamed up with Sunrun to promote the idea to drivers of its F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck. Simulations show that ice-storage air conditioning in buildings as well as smart charging to and from the grid by electric vehicles could allow Texas to use 100% renewable electricity in 2050 without the need no storage battery.
Even Europe, famous for its cold, dark winters, may only need storage for a few weeks, based on the experience of several German and Belgian utility companies. It’s a much more feasible challenge than many fossil fuel enthusiasts like to believe.
The bottom line is simple, says Lovins. “Electricity grids can process much larger fractions of renewable energy at no or modest cost. Some European countries with little or no hydropower already get between half and three-quarters of their electricity from renewables with better network reliability than in the US. It’s time to get past the myths. Amen to that. Let the data do the talking, not the harbingers of doom who are primarily concerned with lining their own pockets, the environment be damned .
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