Will Renewable Energy Outrun the US National Electric Grid?

renewable energy national grid photo
Photo via Earthfirst

It could, according to an agency charged with monitoring and assessing it. A Climate Wire report notes that the North American Electric Reliability Corps is worried that the aging US electric network may have a tough time handling an influx of energy from new sources—energy that would have to be monitored and transferred in entirely new ways. So, even though Obama is planning on doubling renewable energy production in the US—will we be ready?

National Grid, Meet Renewable Energy


The different bills currently in Congress place aims to have between 4-6% of the nation's energy generated by renewable sources by 2012, and between 20-25% percent in 2021 and 2025. To keep up with such rapid expansion of alternative energy sources, there's going to have to be some serious infrastructure ready to handle the new load.

The biggest challenge, they say, will be simply having enough equipment to transmit the electricity:

"If there is a limiting factor in renewable power growth, it will be the inability to add enough transmission lines to accommodate new wind, solar and other renewable generation resources," [a NERC director of reliability assessments] said.

And while there are already efforts being spearheaded in Congress to get new transmission systems up and running in the US, $11 billion dollars for creating a Smart Grid from the stimulus, and momentum to spare on the issue, there're still a couple major obstacles in reconciling the national grid with renewable energy: adequate technology and deeper political understanding.

Technology for A Renewable-Friendly Grid

From Climate Wire:
"NERC said that integrating renewable power will require complex new computer models to anticipate, monitor and respond to the vagaries of weather that can suddenly alter electricity output from wind or solar units. Sophisticated new power flow monitors and controls will be needed."
Basically, before we can expect a fully functioning grid to transfer renewable energy on a large scale, we're going to need better technology. But NERC is optimistic. They believe that technological advances will come concurrently with the accelerated rise of renewable energy—they're betting that the technology will be there in time for when we need it.

Gridlocked Politics?

As for the politics, the NERC spokesman said
On the policymakers' side, there's a lot that is not still understood about the implications of a large share of renewables."
Which could of course lead to renewable energy development being out of sync with the grid technology—but seeing as how the renewables will be phased in over the course of a decade, there's reason to hope such discrepancies would be better understood and ameliorated accordingly over time.

So will renewable energy overtake the grid It might—but worst case scenario, it drives more of the private sector to work on getting transmissions systems built or updated while renewable energy continues to surge. In other words, this should be far from our greatest fear. But an efficiently managed political process with informed briefings of tech developments will be key to keeping the process moving.

More on Renewable Energy and the Grid
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How-To: Get Renewable Energy in New York City
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Tags: Alternative Energy | Clean Energy | Congress

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