The U.S. electric grid is horrifyingly outdated. Here’s how to moderni

By Charles F. Kutscher and Jeffrey Logan 5 minute Learn

In the summertime of 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels was dangerously warming the planet. Scientific conferences have been held, voluminous stories have been written, and nationwide pledges have been made, however as a result of fossil fuels have been comparatively low-cost, little concrete motion was taken to scale back carbon emissions.

Then, starting round 2009, first wind generators after which photo voltaic photovoltaic panels decreased sufficient in value to change into aggressive in electrical energy markets. Extra installations resulted in additional “learning curve” value reductions—the lower in value with each doubling of deployment. Since 2009, the costs of wind and solar energy have decreased by an astonishing 72% and 90%, respectively, and they’re now the cheapest electricity sources—though some challenges nonetheless exist.


With the planet going through more and more intense warmth waves, drought, wildfires, and storms, a path to sort out the local weather disaster turned clear: Transition the electric grid to carbon-free wind and photo voltaic and convert most different fossil-fuel customers in transportation, buildings, and trade to electrical energy.

3 methods to convey wind and photo voltaic into the grid

Hailed because the greatest invention of the 20th century, our now-aging grid was primarily based on basic ideas that made sense on the time it was developed. The unique basis was a mixture of “base load” coal vegetation that operated 24 hours a day and large-scale hydropower.

Starting in 1958, these have been augmented by nuclear energy vegetation, which have operated almost constantly to repay their giant capital investments. Not like coal and nuclear, photo voltaic and wind are variable; they supply energy solely when the solar and wind can be found.

Changing to a twenty first century grid, which is more and more primarily based on variable sources, requires a very new mind-set. New sources of flexibility—the flexibility to hold provide and demand in steadiness over all-time scales—are important to allow this transition.

There are principally 3 ways to accommodate the variability of wind and photo voltaic power: use storage, deploy era in a coordinated style throughout a large space of the nation together with extra transmission, and handle electrical energy demand to higher match the availability. These are all sources of flexibility.

Storage is now largely being offered by lithium-ion batteries. Their costs have plummeted, and new storage technologies are being developed.


Expanded transmission is particularly beneficial. When the Northeast is experiencing peak electric demand within the early night, there is nonetheless solar within the West. And, with extra transmission, the massive wind sources within the middle of the nation can send electricity toward both coasts. Transmission research have proven that stronger interconnections among the country’s three power grids are extremely useful.

Making buildings extra environment friendly and controlling their demand can even play an enormous position in cleansing up the grid. Buildings use 74% of U.S. electrical energy. Interconnected units and gear with sensible meters can scale back and reshape a constructing’s energy use.

Improvements that make 100% clear energy potential

Many analysts consider the U.S. can cost-effectively and reliably function an influence grid with 80% to 90% clean electricity, however decarbonizing the final 10% to 20% might be notably tougher. Whereas short-duration storage, lasting 4 hours or much less, is turning into ubiquitous, we’ll possible want to present energy throughout some intervals when wind and photo voltaic sources are at low ranges (what the Germans name dunkelflaute, or “darkish doldrums”). An expanded nationwide transmission community will assist, however some quantity of long-duration storage will possible be wanted.

Quite a few choices are being explored, together with alternative battery technologies and inexperienced hydrogen.

Flow batteries are among the many promising approaches that we’re engaged on on the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute on the College of Colorado. In a typical design, liquid electrolyte flows between two storage tanks separated by a membrane. The tanks could be scaled up in measurement corresponding to the specified storage length.

Green hydrogen is a possible storage choice for very lengthy durations. It is produced by splitting water molecules with an electrolyzer powered by renewable electrical energy. The hydrogen could be saved underground (or in above-ground tanks) and both burned in combustion generators or transformed again to electrical energy in gasoline cells. Inexperienced hydrogen is at the moment very costly however is anticipated to change into extra inexpensive because the cost of electrolyzers decreases.

As well as, new enterprise, market design, and grid operator fashions are rising. Community solar gardens, for instance, enable owners to buy regionally produced photo voltaic electrical energy even when their very own roofs usually are not appropriate for photo voltaic panels. Microgrids are one other enterprise mannequin turning into widespread on campuses and complexes that produce electrical energy regionally and may proceed to function if the grid goes down. Clear microgrids are powered by renewable power and batteries.

Modern market designs embrace time-of-use rates that encourage electrical energy use, comparable to for charging electric autos, when renewable electrical energy is plentiful. Expanded balancing area coordination attracts on variable photo voltaic and wind sources from a large area to present a smoother total provide. Improved grid operations embrace advanced forecasting of wind and solar to decrease wasted energy and scale back the necessity for pricey standby reserves. Dynamic line rating permits grid operators to transmit extra electrical energy via current traces when favorable climate situations allow.

Throughout the financial system, larger consideration to power effectivity can allow power-sector transformation, minimizing prices and enhancing reliability.

Nuclear energy is additionally basically carbon-free, and holding current nuclear vegetation working could make the transition to renewables simpler. Nonetheless, new nuclear vegetation within the U.S. are very costly to construct, have lengthy development instances, and will show too pricey to function in a fashion that will assist agency variable photo voltaic and wind.


In our view, the urgency of local weather change calls for an all-out effort to tackle it. Having a 2035 emissions aim is necessary, however the emissions-reduction path the U.S. takes to attain that aim is crucial. The primary want is to decrease including carbon dioxide and different greenhouse gases to the ambiance. The world already has the instruments to get the grid 80% to 90% carbon-free, and technical specialists are exploring a variety of promising choices for attaining that final 10% to 20%.

Charles F. Kutscher is a fellow and senior analysis affiliate for the Renewable & Sustainable Vitality Institute on the University of Colorado Boulder, and Jeffrey Logan is the affiliate director of power coverage and evaluation for the Renewable & Sustainable Vitality Institute on the University of Colorado Boulder. This text is republished from The Conversation underneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the original article.