Last week, we reported on new Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposed inquiry into whether wind and solar are making the electricity grid less stable. The memo as leaked to Bloomberg News rang our alarm bells at pv magazine, as some of us have been debunking myths about renewable energy for years.
Sadly, Perry is in way over his head. As the former governor of Texas, he isn’t a scientist like Nobel Prize-winning Physicist Steven Chu or former MIT Energy Initiative Director Ernest Moniz, but then again meritocracy does not appear to be one of the things that the Trump Administration is interested in.
As such, we’d like to offer Secretary Perry a little bit of light reading to improve his chops on the issues of integrating large volumes of renewable energy into the grid. We’ve already provided a number of real-world examples, but some academic grounding never hurts, as it appears that Perry may be unfamiliar with the body of work already published on this subject.
First off, I’d like to note that what most concerned me most about Rick Perry’s statement is the line about the “diminishing diversity of our nation’s electric generation mix and what that could mean for baseload power and grid resilience”.
There are so many things wrong with that statement that I don’t know where to start. With natural gas, coal, nuclear power, hydroelectricity and now increasing shares of wind and solar, our grid has never been more diverse – both in sources of power and geography.
But the bigger concern is that Perry conflates grid stability and baseload power. This is a common misconception based on outdated thinking. As such, my first suggestion is that Perry read an excellent Chris Nelder article from 2012.
Second, Perry should read some International Energy Agency studies about integrating renewable energy. As far back as 2008, IEA published a handy little 36-page study that Perry might have missed, which looks at some of the technical issues of integrating renewables.
Of course, IEA has built greatly on this work, and in 2014 published The Power of Transformation, which says that most nations can get 25-40% of their power from wind and solar even at current levels of flexibility – and more if the grid is optimized towards this task.
If Perry is looking for some U.S.-specific studies on the integration of large volumes of wind and solar, he could go back to work published by an agency that is funded by the department which he now runs, namely National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL). I would particularly like to recommend the Western Wind and Solar Integration Studies and Eastern Renewables Integration Studies, which look at scenarios where regional grids get around a third of their power from wind and solar, or four and a half (Western) to six (Eastern) times as much as was on these grids in 2015.
And finally, if Perry has questions specifically about solar, we can recommend the excellent work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which did a deep dive on solar in 2015, including issues with integrating large volumes of PV.
From all these studies, there are a few takeaways: First, there are real challenges to integrating high volumes of wind and solar on U.S. grids (or any grid, for that matter). However, these are mostly economic. If properly managed using technology widely available and used today, including advanced forecasting, increasing levels of wind and solar are by no means a threat to reliability.
And as we do integrate higher levels of wind and solar, baseload will have to go. It will have to go because power systems with high levels of renewable energy need flexibility, not inflexible baseload plants. While baseload in some ways made grid operators’ jobs easier, it is not a requirement for a power system.
Hopefully Perry finds some time in his busy schedule for this line of inquiry, before his office wastes a bunch of taxpayer dollars, which may be in scarce supply if Trump’s budget proposals go through.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.