Renewable Energy and the Electricity Grid
Solar and wind energy is becoming less and less expensive and more and more states are demanding to be powered by renewable energy. California, a leader in renewable energy usage, has a goal of operating on 33% renewable energy by 2020, and they will likely achieve the goal in time. Integrating renewables into the electricity grid is an important step towards sustainability. In order for the US to fully benefit from all of the energy sources that are available to it, they need to address the challenges associated with adding renewables to the grid.
One of the biggest challenges with renewables powering the grid is their unreliability. The grid was built on the idea that it would be powered by fossil fuels, requiring predictable, on demand energy generation. With solar and wind power, this isn't the case. When the sun goes down or the wind stops, there is no more electricity being produced. The grid operator no longer has the option to turn the electricity generator on or off.
The inability to predict the amount of energy being produced by wind and solar generators means that sometimes wind turbines and solar panels need to be switched off if they're producing at a capacity greater than what the grid can handle.
To combat this problem of unreliability, California has implemented a system where natural gas can be burned as a backup -- an energy source that can be turned on or off in minutes. Nuclear and coal plants, on the other hand, cannot be switched on and off as easily. But sometimes intermittent power can create problems from the grid, even causing a blackout.
Being powered by renewables is not impossible -- Germany has successfully used record amounts of wind and solar energy to power the country with the renewables powering more than a quarter of the electricity demanded, and is hoping to be powered by 80% renewables by 2050.
If implemented properly, customers can save a lot of money as peak demands for electricity are expected to drop with the encouraging people to be aware of time-of-use pricing. If energy users were to power their machines that require the most energy, for example washers and dryers, when renewables are plentiful and supplying the grid, their electricity bills will significantly decrease. Additionally, their personal carbon footprint will decrease as they consciously try to use more renewable energy to power their equipment.
The grid needs to supply constant, reliable power. Using renewables as a main energy source will be a challenge. Technology will need to be developed, the grid needs to be ready to compensate for the intermittency of renewable energy sources, and grid operators will need to learn from their German counterparts. Relying on renewables is not impossible, it just needs a little encouragement, dedication, and flexibility.