Keeping the Lights On in a Clean Energy Grid is Doable: Study

Study claims a reliable, blackout-free renewable power grid is within reach.

A new study shows that it is possible to transition the entire world to 100 per cent renewable energy, with a dependable power network, at a reasonable cost and using already established technology.

One of the enduring problems in the renewable energy sector is how to make power harnessed from wind, water and sunlight more reliable. Creating a stable clean power grid is an important obstacle to overcome if the world is to move away from fossil fuel consumption.

A group of engineers at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkley, and Aalborg University in Denmark have proposed a solution. They envision a sustainable energy network made up of a mix of weather-based power sources and other more predictable clean sources such as geothermal plants and reservoirs, tidal and wave devices and hydroelectric plants. The stability of the latter, combined with existing power storage technology, would offset the shortfalls and capture the surplus of the former.

The engineers grouped 139 countries into 20 regions based on geographic proximity and some geopolitical factors. In a previous study, they created roadmaps for these regions to transition to 100 per cent clean, renewable energy by 2050. The current study, published in Renewable Energy, builds on that work by examining ways to keep the system stable once that transition is complete.

The group studied predictions of global weather patterns from 2050 to 2054. Using that data, they predicted the amount of energy that weather-related sources could produce during that period. The group then combined data from that model with a second model — one that factored in more stable sources of renewable power and the storage of excess electricity. They matched the supply with demand in 30-second intervals to anticipate not only changing weather conditions, but also hourly and seasonal differences in consumer demand.

Combining the two models allowed the group to predict how non-weather-reliant energy sources could offset fluctuations in power generated by wind, water and sunlight. They tested the reliability of the system under three different scenarios of varying production and storage capacity.

The result: a stable power network with no blackouts in each scenario.

The researchers also found that under their model the cost per unit of energy — which include health and climate costs — was about one quarter what it would be if the world continues on its current power consumption path. In addition, the cost of running the grid would be cut roughly in half, making it more affordable for consumers.

The study highlights the promise that a reliable clean energy system presents. “There is no technical or economic barrier to transitioning the entire world to 100 per cent clean, renewable energy with a stable electric grid at low cost,” concluded Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, one of engineers involved in the study.

For more on sustainable energy, check out Is Renewable Energy Economically Viable?