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Explainer: Reliable, Clean Grid Can Be 100% Renewable, Despite Skeptics’ Fears for Reliability

More renewable electricity combined with new energy management and storage techniques “can lead to a grid that is reliable and clean”, contrary to the skepticism of renewable energy detractors, two leading North American energy analysts argue in a post for Yale Environment 360.

“The myths boil down to this: Relying on renewable sources of energy will make the electricity supply undependable,” write Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder and chair emeritus Amory B. Lovins and M.V. Ramana, director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. But “all sources of power will be unavailable sometime or other. Managing a grid has to deal with that reality, just as much as with fluctuating demand,” so that the shift to renewable power just means new ways of confronting variability and uncertainty.

Lovins and Ramana push back on three flavours of misinformation and myth that are holding back the transition to a renewable grid:

• Skeptics say an influx of renewable energy makes power grids less reliable. But “Germany—where renewables supply nearly half of the country’s electricity—boasts a grid that is one of the most reliable in Europe and the world,” with the average customer only experiencing 15 minutes of power outages through an entire year in 2020. “The United States, where renewable energy and nuclear power each provide roughly 20 percent of electricity, had five times Germany’s outage rate—1.28 hours in 2020.”

• While critics see countries like Germany relying on fossil fuels for back-up power and grid stability, “the official data say otherwise.” Germany more than offset its declining fossil generation between 2010 and 2020 with renewable electricity and energy savings, while reducing emissions 42.3%. And when the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown prompted Japan to permanently or indefinitely close more than 40 nuclear reactors, “electricity savings and renewable energy offset virtually the whole loss, despite policies that suppressed renewables.”

• Opponents continually point out that solar and wind only work when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. But “while variable output is a challenge, it is neither new nor especially hard to manage. No kind of power plant runs 24/7, 365 days a year, and operating a grid always involves managing variability of demand at all times.” Water levels in hydropower reservoirs vary by season and, increasingly, by climate-driven drought conditions, while “big fossil and nuclear plants are typically out of action roughly 7 to 12% of the time, some much more.” Climate and weather disruptions at U.S. nuclear plants have become seven times more frequent in the last decade, they write, and French nuclear plants fell below 65% of their rated capacity in 2020, making nuclear the country’s most intermittent source of electricity for that year.

Those realities haven’t stopped commentators from tagging renewables as the cause of California blackouts brought on by “an extreme heat wave probably induced by climate change, faulty planning, and the lack of flexible generation sources and sufficient electricity storage,” Lovins and Ramana write. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and others were only too happy to falsely blame renewables, rather than failing gas plants, for an epic grid failure that contributed to more than 700 deaths during a deep cold snap last February.

“In reality, it is entirely possible to sustain a reliable electricity system based on renewable energy sources plus a combination of other means, including improved methods of energy management and storage,” the two authors counter. That line of thought begins with energy-efficient buildings that “need less heating or cooling and change their temperature more slowly, so they can coast longer on their own thermal capacity and thus sustain comfort with less energy, especially during peak-load periods.” Utilities can use demand flexibility or demand response programs that compensate users, “often automatically and imperceptibly”, for scaling back consumption when necessary to help balance demand with supply.

A stable renewable grid can also take advantage of greater diversity, in both geography and technology—from wind and solar to geothermal or agriculture waste. “The idea is simple: If one of these sources, at one location, is not generating electricity at a given time, odds are that some others will be.” And different forms of distributed energy storage, beginning with the batteries in a growing fleet of electric cars, could enable a grid the size of Texas’ to shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050, with no need for large, centralized battery plants.