Renewable energy is not without its drawbacks. No energy resource is. But solar is "uniquely virtuous among energy industries," as contractor John Fitzgerald Weaver puts it, because it harnesses the power of an infinitely renewable source without a speck of pollution.
Solar alone, without battery backup, can't currently meet the needs of our 24/7 society. Let's take one big solar state, Cali, as an example. Before the pandemic, California celebrated its one-millionth small solar energy installation, primarily rooftop systems. Having the right mix of energy sources is key to meeting high demand both in daytime and overnight, says the president of California's power grid operator.
We all agree that the more energy we can produce inexpensively without pollution, the better off we'll be. What challenges lie ahead for the green energy industry, and how does it plan to combat them?
The Importance of Resource Diversity
Uncommonly warm nights in some regions of California last summer led to brief blackouts, illustrating the need for resource diversity. Heat waves can keep demand high after the sun goes down, but weather forecasts make such nights totally predictable.
A story in the Los Angeles Times outlined ways the state can continue reducing carbon emissions while meeting spikes in nighttime demand. These challenges are shared by other big solar states, and the solutions will work across America. Below are three solutions.
Batteries can be charged with solar energy in the middle of the day, when solar energy systems typically generate more power than consumers need, and supply it back at night.
While batteries are optional for household solar energy systems, energy storage is key to big distributed solar. "We really need utility-scale chemical battery storage to deal with rapid intermittency in both generation (renewables) and demand (rapid changes in use throughout the commercial day)," wrote James Conca in Energy's Future—Battery and Storage Technologies. "These need to be very large but very stable and long-lasting."
Luckily, battery tech is advancing on many fronts. We grew up needing batteries for transistor radios, the occasional flashlight, and maybe a toy or two—now just look around. Our phones, tablets, laptops, vacuum cleaners, power tools, cordless kitchen gadgets, and maybe even our car run on batteries. Advancements in battery tech for mobile devices, automobiles, and houses can be shared among all those industries.
For example, Panasonic supplied batteries for Tesla's early vehicles, the Model S and Model X. Now in a Tesla factory outside Sparks, Nevada, Panasonic's latest cells are being built to go into the Model 3 and Model Y. That technology moves off the road and into homes in the Panasonic EverVolt, a whole-house energy storage device. When the next great battery breakthrough is made, it could improve everything from the phone in your pocket to the car in your garage to the solar energy system in your home.
When you need power, do you really care what state it comes from?
Understanding the importance of batteries to meet the state's around-the-clock energy demands, the California Public Utilities Commission has ordered utilities to add 3,300 megawatts of new power capacity, most of which is expected to be big batteries.
Make a Supergrid
States can link their electricity systems, creating a supergrid better able to harvest diverse energy sources (sun in one state, wind in another) and to meet local demand spikes.
In the winter of 2020/2021, Texas showed us the danger of isolating a power grid from one's neighbors. Texas wanted to be an island of unregulated energy, and it got its wish. None of the neighboring states could help when Texas suffered widespread winter blackouts, because the connections had been deliberately severed. Also, Texas energy rates are much higher than neighboring states, just like on a real island (Hawaii). Fox Business reported on deregulation's major backfire.
When you need power, do you really care what state it comes from? "Consumers expect a more resilient, safe, reliable, and efficient grid that requires advancements in technology and processes to be modernized," noted the IEEE Power and Energy Society in an industry advisory report. They advise that so long as we focus on I.T. and cybersecurity when constructing interconnected power grids, they can grow larger and more efficient and bring the benefits of a connected grid to more people.
Appreciate Nuclear Power
Wait—nuclear power in a solar story?! Didn't we just tout the virtues of nonpollution? Well, many people think of nuclear power as inherently dangerous, but it is carbon-free. Recycling the energy in "spent" fuel rods could produce power for hundreds of years, with zero carbon footprint.
The fuel rods are already around; it's not like we would be making more of them. And as a rule, recycling is good. Having provided an estimated 5% of their energy for their intended purpose, fuel rods are considered waste. Nuclear power proponents say that if we recycled the rods we could harness the other 95% of energy in them, rather than burying them as trash.
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The green energy industry is aware of the challenges and equipped to face them head-on. Popular and pollution-free energy resources need to scale up and spread out. Fortunately, advances in energy storage are made every day and can be shared across industries, whether they originated in mobile electronics, cordless tools, electric transportation, or home energy storage devices. Diversifying power sources and distributing them via supergrids would ensure strong, reliable energy for millions and reduce our reliance on fossil fuel.