2013-08-07

Lost in Transmission:
Alternative Energy is there. Where is the Alternative Energy?

-- a _kt75 | reprint



 

 

Renewable energy sources, at least wind and solar, are variable — the wind isn’t always blowing, the sun isn’t always shining. This is something every glib pundit on the internet cites as a reason we’ll need fossil-fuel or nuclear “baseload” power plants for the foreseeable future. It’s a frustrating topic, since people who actually study the subject (like NREL) have shown that there are all sorts of ways to handle variability without disrupting the grid.

One of those ways is transmission: building power lines to take renewable energy from where it is abundant (often remote areas) to where it is needed (mainly big cities). More specifically, the idea is to build high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) lines that would carry energy over long distances from remote sites and feed it into the alternating-current (AC) lines that serve urban areas. (The DC vs. AC question is interesting, but not particularly essential for understanding the bigger questions.)

Transmission is a somewhat vexed subject in the energy world. It brings land/wildlife-focused enviros and local-energy enthusiasts in tension with mainstream enviros and lots of large corporate interests. I’m a local-energy guy myself and have, in the past, pushed back against the kneejerk resort to more transmission.

Still. Even stipulating that we can and should do much, much more to encourage local energy ownership and management; even stipulating that local energy is capable of much more than most forecasts give it credit for; even then, I think new transmission infrastructure is to be welcomed.

Here’s my logic. There are lots of ways other than transmission to handle variable renewable energy and help stabilize its presence on the grid: energy storage, sophisticated distribution grids, demand response, more energy efficiency, etc. Eventually (hopefully?), those other means will allow local, variable, renewable sources of energy to provide smoother, more constant service. And they’ll ensure that every bit of renewable capacity is used to the fullest. But it looks to me like renewables are scaling up much more quickly than those complementary technologies. Until we have more robust local energy systems, I think we’re going to need the brute-force method, i.e., transmission. (I’m open to hearing arguments to the contrary.)

Anyway, this is all by way of introducing some exciting developments in Germany. As a pioneer in scaling up renewables, Germany is currently facing all the challenges and roadbumps that other countries will face in the near future. One of those is the need for transmission. Read the entire article...

Supporting information:
[1], [2], [3], [4], [5]