How renewables can keep the lights on when the sun doesn't shine (part 2)

Arizona solar panels
CC BY 2.0 Flickr

Last week I posted on how renewables can keep the lights on when the sun doesn't shine, or the wind doesn't blow. After all, the unpredictability of the weather is one of the biggest criticisms we hear from naysayers. It is, no doubt, a formidable problem for an energy paradigm based on a constant flow of solid fuels.

But it's not an insurmountable one.

In fact, in addition to the solutions I presented last week - here are a few more.

Microgrids

Businesses and public entities aren't just generating their own power these days. They're developing their own grids. As a result, they are better able to match supply with demand and get the most bang for their renewable buck too.

Better forecasting

Mike reported on this before, but better weather forecasting should directly improve the viability of renewables. Yes, the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, but we are learning more and more about the forces that drive that variability. And with that understanding comes an increased ability to adjust both our energy generation and our consumer demand to better balance the two.

Voluntary, contractual cooperation
Shaun Merritt/CC BY 2.0
Energy intensive businesses have an interest in the predictability of their power. They are inherently incentivized to limit their consumption when demand is insufficient, if the alternative is to face a complete blackout. In the Faroe Islands, three energy intensive businesses account for a full 10% of the island's power demands. In an experiment in demand-supply management, a commercial agreement was reached to reward energy hungry businesses for powering down their operations at short notice to keep the load more constant.

Geographical distribution

The sun might be shining in Scotland, while it's windy in the English Channel. By spreading renewables out over a broader area, and by using a mix of different sources, it's possible to create a more constant supply - transferring energy from one location to another as needed to meet demand.

Non-battery storage

I mentioned in my last post that grid-scale and distributed battery storage will play an increasingly important role as renewables become more common. But there are other options for storing energy too. Wind turbines or solar panels can pump water up hill, for example, which is then released to run a turbine when the original source goes quiet. Molten salt storage for solar is another technology which could help extend the output from solar thermal power plants.

We're not short of options, and there's probably more I've missed. My point is not to say that a renewable future is easy - but rather that it's possible. Nobody knows what our future energy mix will look like, but it's a fair bet to say it will not look like today's. And that can only be a good thing.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Batteries | Electricity | Renewable Energy | Solar Power

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