Energy secretary Rick Perry announced this week that the Department of Energy will be conducted a review of the ways in which renewables are affecting the stability of American power grids. The Hill reports:
The review, according to a memo from Perry released on Monday, aims to assess whether federal policies have hurt the electric grid’s supply of baseload power, or the reliable electricity supply generated by large-scale power plants generally fueled by coal, natural gas or nuclear sources.
This is a critical component of our national energy security picture, and it’s certainly one worthy of official review. Greens have cheered the arrival of wind and solar power without thinking through what these renewables are going to do to grid stability. That’s a major issue, because the intermittent nature of renewables that can only provide power when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing makes the business of matching electricity supply with demand a much more difficult task.
Renewables don’t just cause problems on those cloudy windless days, either. As Germany has seen, when renewables produce large amounts of power in blustery, cloudless weather, utilities need to find ways to reduce the load on the power grid, either by incentivizing consumers to use more power or, as Berlin has done, by offloading that excess power onto neighboring grids.
There are solutions to these problems, but they will require significant investment in grid infrastructure, and a rethink of the ways in which these grids are laid out. Currently, power transmission is designed to move power from large power plants to consumers, but the distributed nature of renewable power—wind and solar farms tend to be smaller and more numerous than coal- or gas-fired power plants, for example—is putting a strain on those legacy systems.
At this point, the disruptors—renewable producers—aren’t shouldering these extra costs to the grid. Moreover, their rise threatens the viability of baseload power sources (fossil fuel and nuclear plants) which play a necessary role in any future sustainable energy mix precisely because they’re capable of supplying electricity 24/7. Renewables are, in specific cases, beginning to be able to compete without subsidization, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for a takeover just yet. Hopefully this DOE review helps clarify what needs to happen before intermittent renewables shoulder a larger share of the national energy mix.