How to Leverage Regional Wind and Solar Power for the Entire U.S.
Wind and solar power can produce the lowest cost electricity and have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional energy sources like coal or natural gas.
However, based on current infrastructure and policy, geography poses a broader utilization challenge as the U.S. population primarily resides along the coasts, and wind is mainly produced in the Great Plains and solar in the Southwest. This is in part due to the fact that the electric grid was developed in the early 20th century when large remote power plants and high voltage transmission lines were the cost-effective approach.
Thankfully, we have more solutions to this challenge today:
Expand transmission capability – Expanding existing transmission capability is the “make tomorrow look like yesterday” approach – the status quo. The world has decades of experience, an established industry, a trained workforce, and regulatory structures that have a history of success, posing a low technical risk. In short, it is reliable. However, it is also expensive and frequently requires a government commitment that is unpopular along many parts of the transmission line, all of which adds significantly to the cost of siting a new line.
Make the existing grid smarter – Embracing enhanced grid control and modeling on the power system interconnections can help us increase the power capacity of the existing grid. New technologies allow the transmission system to better optimize controllable generators, substations, and other grid equipment than what is used today. With a smarter grid, significantly more power can be transmitted by making the existing transmission infrastructure more efficient.
Move source and use closer together – Though offshore wind is a growing sector, wind and solar power are typically generated inland and population and business centers are generally coastal. By shrinking this divide, less energy needs to be transmitted from the heartland to the coasts, increasing efficiency and decreasing the need for costly infrastructure. Low-carbon hydrogen can be produced anywhere there are renewables or natural gas with carbon capture and storage technology.
Transport hydrogen rather than electricity – Rather than transport the solar- or wind-produced electricity, transport a different energy carrier – hydrogen. For years, European countries wrestled with ways to transport solar power from the Middle East and Northern Africa via major grid and transmission expansions. Today, the popular emerging approach is to move solar power using hydrogen as an efficient, low-carbon energy carrier. This is a model that could be easily replicated in the U.S. through existing infrastructure and transportation systems.
Examples of the globe’s embrace of hydrogen are becoming more commonplace. Major manufacturers for the turbines used in power plants like GE and Siemens are developing technology to operate using natural gas, hydrogen or a hybrid of the two. When cost-effective, barges on the river system or pipelines in the U.S. heartland could transport hydrogen produced from excess wind and solar power to the coasts where it can be used as a cleaner fuel in the legacy power system.
Waiting to invest in this technology is not a viable solution as delay will be expensive and risks putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage globally.
Success requires coordinated federal government action. First, the Department of Energy (DOE) should establish an organization to keep the playing field level among these four areas. Industry and state governments will not be able to manage these needs, so the responsibility falls on the federal government to provide actionable information and policy.
Second, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rules need to be forward-looking and accommodate future uncertainty on the ideal hybrid system architecture. Increasingly, the system architecture will be broader than simply grid architecture.
Finally, agencies must significantly fund research to drive down the cost of each option and ramp up clean energy technologies to scale. The research should include technologic development, technoeconomic studies, as well as studies to remove barriers to public acceptance of the emerging new power system.
At least 50% of the funding should go to universities as, by conducting the research, they are also educating the next generation of U.S. leaders. Special consideration should be given to research investment in the energy-producing states to accelerate local job growth. Investments should also be made in industry and DOE laboratories with preference being given to funding effective cross-sector and industry collaboration.
While the traditional approach is time-tested, today’s technology provides a broader set of solutions to our challenges. Success won’t result from trying to hold on to 20th century technology and infrastructure. Rather it will come from the prudent and clear-eyed building of a 21st century energy system on an outstanding 20th century foundation.
Dr. Robert Hebner is Director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin.