Let's Green The Sh*t Out Of The Grid

Environment
Talk about a waste of energy. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons license 2.0)

No matter how much Republicans try to spin this week's deadly blackouts as the fault of clean energy (or perhaps the failure of individual Texans to go pump their own electricity from the well), the fact is that Texas deliberately kept most of its power grid disconnected from the national grid, to avoid regulations (including requirements that they winterize their equipment). And then Texas saw how brilliantly the free market handled a crisis. Not surprisingly, the Texas mess has a lot of Energy Nerds talking about Why Grids Matter, and especially how the national grid will need substantial changes to deal with climate change.

Fortunately, Joe Biden's plan to move the USA to net zero carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2035 puts modernizing the electrical grid at the center of reaching that goal. That's particularly important since extreme weather events will become more frequent due to climate change. So how do we do that? Basically, there are two big goals that need to be achieved. They're going to cost a hell of a lot of money, but the good news is that they'll pay off in lower energy costs overall — and along the way, they'll create a lot of jobs in construction and manufacturing. And that's just from modernizing the energy grid; we'll also need to be investing heavily in building the clean energy generation capacity and energy storage that'll go along with it.


The biggest problem with our existing grid is that it's a top-down system, designed to move electricity from power plants to homes, with a bunch of stops along the way. It developed and still largely runs in a fragmented fashion, with Texas's state grid, mostly cut off from the rest of the country, perhaps the most extreme example of that fragmentation. As it works now, the flow of electricity is mostly one way, from the producers to the consumers. But as more people and companies move to rooftop solar electricity systems, and many communities develop their own microgrids, the regional and national grids will need to adapt so they can also take in extra generation capacity from those small suppliers and move it through the grid to where it's needed.

The grid will also have to adapt to the fact that renewable energy sources aren't always on at all times, which is what a former chief executive of the US was talking about when he claimed that if the wind isn't blowing, you can't watch TV. But if it's not blowing at the wind farm near you, it's going to be blowing somewhere else, so that's where the power will come from.

The green energy grid will have to be able to match available supply with real-time demand, by moving electrons where they're needed. For instance, when it gets dark in the Mountain West, there's still an hour of solar electricity that could be moved from California; overnight, wind energy from the midwest could go where it's needed. Storage via big batteries and fuel cells, and even batteries at customers' homes, would also help out with all that. It's complicated, as David Roberts explains at Vox, but doable, especially as computing power becomes cheaper.

To move all that power around, we're going to need more transmission lines, as Roberts explains here, and a genuinely national power grid, instead of the three grids the US currently has, which basically serve the East, the West, and fuckin' Texas.

Generally, with grids, the bigger and more interconnected they are, the more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective they are. To wit: a 2016 study by scientists at NOAA found that a national HVDC [high-voltage direct current] network would save US consumers $47 billion annually. The Interconnections Seam Study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) — a study the Trump administration tried to squash — found that every $1 invested in a national HVDC grid would return $2.50 in economic, environmental, and social benefits.

The places where green energy production is most feasible tend to be in the interior of the country (and offshore wind, too), which means those facilities will need to be connected to consumers far away. That means not only building a lot of transmission capacity, but also getting past roadblocks, like the tangle of federal and state licensing requirements that have blocked some transmission projects.

Fortunately, there are also opportunities to repurpose transmission lines that were formerly connected to old, dirty powerplants, as the LA Times notes:

Especially in the West, coal-plant retirements are opening up long-distance wires that could be used to bring clean energy to cities. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for instance, is planning to import large amounts of solar and wind energy through a transmission line that currently carries coal-fired electricity from Utah.

Los Angeles is also exploring a partnership with the Navajo Nation to develop solar power on tribal lands, utilizing long-distance wires that previously connected the city with the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, which closed last year.

This is all fairly electrifying stuff, and we need to get the grid right in order to make clean energy work, and to decarbonize the economy. Fortunately, there are a lot of very smart people who've been working on all this for ages, and they're being listened to by Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.

[LA Times / Vox / LAT/ Bloomberg / WaPo / Politico / Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons license 2.0, cropped]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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