Getting on the Grid

It’s not uncommon to hear those resistant to the adoption of renewable energy sources cite the “unreliability” of predictable wind patterns and sunlight. And back in Texas in 2008, their cries were somewhat vindicated. On one particularly chilly night, residents in the western portion of the state began cranking up the heat just as wind dropped well below previously predicted speeds. A blackout ensued. Backup generators soon restored power to the area, but officials had to face a new question: How could they convince residents that renewable energy could become the norm if its sources (wind, sun) were unreliable at times? At some point, the wind will stop blowing; the sun will stop shining.

The reliability question still rages on. Last Summer, the Obama Administration announced the Clean Power Plan, which mandates power plants’ reduction of CO2 emissions by 32% from 2005 levels. Obviously, this is impossible without embracing some form of renewable (and clean!) energy. Right now, the convention is that coal or natural gas would serve as a backup for cleaner energy sources. But in the event “the wind stops”, utilities are back at square one, pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere.

In order to make society truly independent of dirty energy, researchers and entrepreneurs are scrambling to produce technology that will harbor clean energy reserves. Bill Gates, in the quest for “an energy miracle”, has been investing in technologies such as pool-sized battery reserves and solar paint.

But University of Colorado, Boulder researcher Chris Clack tells Vauhini Vara of CityLab that the answer may be much more simple than we think. Remember how the wind will stop blowing and the sun will stop shining? That only holds true in any one given place at a particular time. In Clack’s view, the wind is always blowing and the sun is always shining somewhere, and that is what we need to tap into. In other words, it’s time to get connected.

In a plan reminiscent of Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Plan, Clack and his fellow researchers at UC Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are arguing for the adoption of a national grid that will allow electricity generated by clean energy to be transmitted anywhere at any time. This isn’t without its obvious challenges, however. There’s the lingering question of federal funding and who would plan/build it (The Department of Energy? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? Private utility companies?). On top of that, if recent legislative trends can be used as a predictor of future progress, the fact that Congress is shying away from approving any massive infrastructure projects is not promising at all. And then there’s the question of local governments. How will a clean energy grid affect their economies? For states like West Virginia, which provides just under a quarter of all coal jobs in the nation, how do they deal with an inevitable labor imbalance? Lastly, even if all of that did get figured out, the legal battles surrounding imminent domain would flare up as some landowners probably won’t approve of their property being gutted for the installation of new infrastructure.

A nationalized grid can work, though. The Chinese and Indian governments have been working tirelessly to get their respective countries on the same page. But this makes for a difficult comparison to their potential US Counterpart: Those two countries are striving towards a unified grid because they can power their rising number of industrial factories. The US, on the other hand, is rapidly losing factories. So it becomes clear that in Asia, the grid is a business decision first; in America, the motivation is environmental.

And as for the question of electric delivery? The United States heavily favors alternating current for distribution of electricity. It’s much safer and more efficient in local communities, but for long distance transmission, direct current is the winner. Such a grid would require the use of DC lines, which are pretty rare in the US today— you can thank Tesla’s discoveries for that!

But the grid could still be a great idea if all the chips can fall in the right place. The fact of the matter is clean energy can be more abundant in one place than in another. Take the Florida capital city of Tallahassee, for example. It’s looking to reduce its own CO2 emissions by investing in solar energy. A noble start, but it will only account for two percent of the State’s energy production. So it’s looking into its prospects for wind energy— and they aren’t great, because there’s not a lot of it to go around. But in what appears to be a microcosm of Clack’s grid dreams, the city is planning on transmitting wind power from rural Oklahoma. While there are still some legal kinks to work out, this partnership could be an example for the entire country.