The fantasy of 100% renewable energy
Credit: By Alan Y. Wayne | The Harvard Crimson | September 30, 2014 | www.thecrimson.com ~~
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Renewable energy is all the rage at the moment. Fears of global warming are ever present (and well-justified, I might add). Tax benefits for solar panels and wind turbines are at an all-time high. On Harvard’s campus, chants and rallies for divestment urge a shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables.
With Denmark’s wind power production exceeding its consumption on certain days last year, there have been calls for the United States to go completely fossil-free and become solely renewable-powered by 2050. After all, if Denmark can do it, why can’t we?
This is the point where I want to grab these 100-percent-renewable-promoting people and scream, “That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!” (Oh, and Denmark isn’t entirely wind powered, that’s a misunderstanding—the true number is around 40 percent of electricity generation.)
Regardless of political pressure (which many have blamed for our lack of renewables), having a fully renewable-powered United States is physically impossible—and you can blame the sorry state of the U.S. energy grid.
Very few people know how the electricity is transmitted from, say, a wind turbine to their light bulb. We are lucky to live in a developed country where electricity can be taken for granted and blackouts are extraordinarily rare. This makes the electric grid appear to be a stable, ever-present figure that quietly and efficiently powers the country. In reality, the electric grid is less a perfectly fine-tuned blanket of distribution and more an ever-evolving patchwork quilt of relatively inefficient power lines.
There are two massive problems that currently plague the electric grid: We can’t store the electricity we produce, and we can’t transmit the electricity far from where it was generated.
There have been times when, in the Midwest on particularly windy days, there is so much energy generated by massive wind farms that there isn’t enough demand in the local area to use up all the electricity. When that happens, it would be fantastic if we could just put aside the excess electricity for another time when we need it. But we can’t. In fact, because there is absolutely no way to efficiently store this excess energy, the wind farm owners must sometimes pay money to offload their electricity.
Not being able to store it wouldn’t be an issue if we could just send all the excess electricity somewhere else though. After all, even if Wyoming’s five residents don’t need the energy at that moment, New York City is always hungry for more electricity. So what would happen if Wyoming’s wind farms generated the only energy available in the country, Wyoming had excess electricity, and a man in the Big Apple turned on his lights in an attempt to increase demand?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The light wouldn’t even go on. Due to the structure of our power grid, electricity cannot travel from Wyoming to New York.
In fact, the electric grid in the United States is actually three electric “interconnections”—the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection, and the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas. Electricity is hardly transferred between the interconnections—not out of choice, mind you. We physically cannot due to the difference between grid structures and a lack of infrastructure. And even within an interconnection, electricity struggles to travel distances of greater than 400 miles.
Now we return to the feasibility of a 100 percent renewable energy United States.
It’s true that if we covered just five percent of Arizona with solar photovoltaic panels, we would have more than enough energy to cover the four trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity consumed annually in the United States. However, if we actually built this massive solar farm, the consequence wouldn’t be a green United States. It would just mean that the Southwest would have massively negative energy prices (assuming the grid in the area could even handle the load) while the rest of the United States would be in a perpetual blackout. No storage, and no long-distance or cross-interconnection transmission, remember? And what happens if it gets cloudy?
Wind power suffers from the same problems—even worse, actually, since wind is less predictable than the sun.
We’ve tapped all the hydropower sources in the country and it only accounts for seven percent of our nation’s electricity production.
Geothermal sites are unlikely to have a production capacity of more than 20 percent of total U.S. consumption (and are currently sitting at 0.41 percent).
Despite the environmental benefits, the fact simply remains that renewable energy—wind and solar in particular—is simply too volatile from minute to minute to produce the steady power we need. And we don’t yet have the storage or transmission technology to address these issues.
Sadly, for the time being, we will simply have to accept that the vast majority of our electricity must come from fossil fuel and nuclear plants.
Alan Y. Wayne ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Kirkland House.
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