Paths to a 100% clean energy grid

To decarbonize grid, keep the nukes, say 2 Colorado researchers

Two Colorado researchers on renewable energy have a recommendation that might surprise some who embrace goals of 100% renewable or, at least, emission-free electricity.

Keep the existing nuclear reactors on line as long as possible, say Charles Kutscher, a fellow at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Jeffrey Logan, the associate director of the institute.

Writing in The Hill, the two Coloradans say that creating an emissions-free electric grid in the United States won’t be easy. 2020 was a record year for new U.S. wind and solar electricity capacity additions, but to achieve a carbon-free grid by 2035, annual installations of solar and wind must double or triple.

They also urge wringing as much efficiency out of transportation, buildings, and industrial sectors, hence lessening the amount of electricity that will be needed. But they also say it’s important to keep the existing nuclear fleet operating for as long as it’s safe to do so.

This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal that tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To subscribe, go to BigPivots.com.

They note that many analysts see a clear path to achieving 80 to 90% renewable electricity grid.

“Addressing that last 10 to 20% will also likely require long-term storage as well as grid modernization including improved market design.”

But if there are challenges and difficulties, they say, mostly it’s a matter of doing.

“Although some observers have called for a massive R&D effort to develop innovative solutions to the climate crisis, the truth is that we already have the technologies we need to solve most of the problem, and our chief focus must be on enabling and deploying them.”

What new NREL study says about achieving 100% renewable grids

While we might all like a definitive answer on what it will take to achieve an emission-free grid, a new study produced by 17 researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, both federal labs, offers a more squishy answer.

The study carefully works through the challenges, identifying three key ones:

1) the short-term variability problem, which has largely been solved;

2) the diurnal mismatch problem, which is partially solved, so further research is needed; and

3) the seasonal problem remains largely unsolved although some pathways have been proposed. Additional research is also needed.

Locally, yes, deep, deep penetration is possible, but getting close to achieving 100% renewables at a national scale for all hours of the year—well, there are significant unanswered questions.

“There is no simple answer to how far we can increase renewable deployment before costs rise dramatically or reliability becomes compromised,” said Paul Denholm, the principal energy analyst at NREL and lead author of the paper that was published in Joule, an energy journal.

“As far as the last few percent’ of the path to 100%, there is no consensus on a clear cost-effective pathway to address both the Balance Challenge and the Inverter Challenge at the national scale,” he said in a statement distributed by NREL.

“Studies have found no specific technical threshold at which the grid ‘breaks,’ and we can’t just extrapolate from previous cost analyses because, when it comes to the future, there are many non-linearities and unknown unknowns—things we don’t even know we don’t know yet.”

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Allen Best

1 thought on “Paths to a 100% clean energy grid”

  1. This read is remiss on the land space energy density requirements for renewable energy systems technologies. It also fails to mention the importance of quantifying resource flows of mineral resources needed to scale up these technologies e.g. precious metals. A sustainable transition is unachievable without designing resource cycles without considering the aforementioned.

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