“Electron Highway” Brings Solar Into the Mainstream
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Solar and Wind Could Dominate the U.S. Grid by 2030
A new study demonstrates how renewable energy might win a place at center stage on the American landscape long before scientists have predicted. The solution takes just one infrastructure change. With this one change a renewable energy profile for the U.S. could happen by 2030.
A New Scenario
The scenario has been floated by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder. In this proposal a national distribution system blasts though the conventional hurdle of intermittent supply.
The researchers are calling the system the “electron superhighway.” It’s a national system of high-voltage transmission wires that would collect electricity from the most productive regions of the U.S. and move it to virtually anywhere in the contiguous 48 states.
They’re asking policymakers to build this high voltage transmission network post haste.
It’s All About Easy Distribution
Solar power is most consistent in the south. Wind is most consistent in the midwest. The proposed strategy would gather energy in those prime locations—or any suitable location, for that matter—and transport it through a high voltage transmission network, which the researchers liken to an interstate highway of electrical wires.
According to their mathematical models, this “sharing economy” solution would allow the US to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power production by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels. The scenario includes mathematically accurate estimates of increasing demand.
Earlier predictions about the switch to renewables lacked this system of flexible distribution. Each region of the country, it was thought, would have to supply its own power.
And since solar and wind power are intermittent in most regions, this posed a huge storage problem. Until scientists figured out how to store power in power-unstable regions, there was no hope of assuring homes and businesses the constant resource they need.
But fluid distribution changes all that.
“With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” said study co-author Alexander MacDonald of NOAA in a statement. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”
Speeding Up the Solution
According to the study, this transition could be accomplished by 2030.
As costs for solar and wind continue to drop, renewable energy becomes more economical than fossil fuels, even coal. Once renewable start winning on the HVDC grid, market forces would slowly phase out fossil fuels.
Even in scenarios where renewable energy costs exceeded current predictions, the models still produced a system that cut CO2 emissions 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, while delivering electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour.
For comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cent per kilowatt hour in 2012.
“This study pushes the envelope,” said Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Engineering Program, who was not involved in the study. “It shows that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil-fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost than a fossil fuel-based grid—even before storage is considered.”
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