When Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced his department’s plan to produce a study looking at the effect of renewables on the security of America’s power grids, environmentalists across the country braced for the worst. This was, to them, a veiled shot at wind and solar power, and the resulting study would surely be used as an excuse for the Trump Administration to hamstring fledgling renewable energy industries.
But as Reuters reports, a draft copy of that report indicates that those green fears were overblown:
The growth of renewable power, including wind and solar, has not harmed the reliability of the U.S. electricity grid, according to a draft U.S. Department of Energy study, echoing the findings of grid operators across the country.
“Numerous technical studies for most regions of the nation indicate that significantly higher levels of renewable energy can be integrated without any compromise of system reliability,” the draft says.
It added that growth of renewables could require the building of more transmission lines, advanced planning, and more flexibility to balance generation and meet demand. But it said that baseload power – coal and nuclear power – “is not as necessary as it used to be” given advances in grid technology.
From the beginning, environmentalists accused this study of being a rush job, so it will be interesting to see whether or not they’ll stick to that criticism now that its conclusion seems to favor renewables. Other observers would do well to keep the expedited nature of this report in mind.
That said, this is an interesting data point for assessing U.S. energy security. The study finds that current wind and solar power supplies have not unduly affected the stability of our grids. That’s important because of the intermittency of those renewables—they can only provide power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and that can make it more difficult for utilities to balance supply and demand for both producers and consumers of electricity.
But last year, wind produced just 5.6 percent of U.S. electricity, and solar just 0.9 percent. Renewables are growing quickly, but they’re still fringe players in our national power mix, and this report suggests that their intermittency hasn’t reached problematic levels.
That doesn’t mean their reliability (or lack thereof) isn’t an issue—just look to Germany, where renewables produce roughly a third of the country’s power and create large variations in supply that have wreaked havoc on neighboring energy grids. Civilization requires consistent energy inputs, and that fact places real limits on the feasibility of current-day solar and wind.
Cost-effective, commercially scalable energy storage options would make quick work of this problem, but they don’t yet exist. As solar and wind continue to chip away at market share here in the U.S., their effects on grids are going to be more pronounced.