Western US Grid Can Handle More Renewable Energy Than Previously Predicted

pylons smart grid electricity photo

Photo: Flickr, CC
Solar and Wind Could Play a Much Bigger Role
A new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado has found that the Western section of the U.S. power grid could handle up to about 35% renewables if properly integrated. That doesn't mean it would be simple, but it's a counter-arguments to those who think the grid can't handle much intermittent sources, and the NREL is definitely a credible source.
pylons smart grid electricity photo

Photo: Flickr, CC
NREL considered a scenario in which 30 percent of the total electricity produced in a year in western states comes from wind turbines and 5 percent comes from solar power--mostly from solar thermal plants that generate power by concentrating sunlight to produce high temperatures and steam. [...]

The researchers found that one way to keep the number of new backup power plants to a minimum is to expand the geographical area that renewable energy is gathered from, says Debra Lew, the NREL project manager in charge of the study. [...] The NREL study estimated that drawing only on local resources would increase variability on the grid by a factor of 50. That's "a huge increase," Lew says, too big for a local utility to balance using backup power and other resources. If you aggregate resources over several states, the increase is less than a factor of two. (source)

This can be further improved by implementing more demand response. This means that utilities would contact some of their biggest customers during the few hours a year when they can't match demand and ask them to reduce their consumption (sometimes paying them to do it, which can be less expensive than building backup power plants). A smart grid with real-time pricing would also help shape demand.

The general concept isn't new, but it's always good to have studies confirming that it's a possibility and how far we can go. Of course, over 35% things are going to be more problematic, but by the time we get there we should have solved at least part of the storage problem, and the 3 U.S. grids should be better integrated.

If you want to better visualize what the Western U.S. grid looks like, check out this map.

Via NREL, Technology Review
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