Is Clean Energy A Growing Threat to the Power Grid?

Federal officials say green energy from sources like wind and the sun may be a good idea, but for now, grids are struggling to accommodate their unpredictability.

The U.S. Energy Department is running computer models out in Golden, Colorado to determine how to deal with one of the biggest threats to the power grid: green energy. So reports the Los Angeles Times.

Concerned state and federal officials are spending billions of dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer money to come up grid technology that will keep up with the demands of clean energy. Energy officials are worried that as states like California rush to create more sources of renewable power, the nation’s power grids will not be able to support the additional levels of stress, the LA Times reports.

A grid’s role is to maintain a constant stream of energy, and those who run them must calibrate how much power to pump into the system at any one time to maintain that stream. An overload, even for a moment, can cause a blackout. Alternative sources of energy, like wind and solar power, are not predictable, making it difficult to make those calibrations. If the wind fails to blow or the sun fails to shine, power generation stops, and in some areas, renewable sources of energy are the only game in town.

“The grid was not built for renewables,” Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells the LA Times.

A recent report by Caltech states the vital importance – and challenge – of making a nationwide grid that can accommodate green energy, and they estimate that about $1 trillion is likely to be spent on making that happen.

California is at the head of the curve, with the California Public Utilities Commission last month ordering the state’s biggest power company to find a way to store renewable energy so that it can be parsed out more evenly over time. Companies have until 2024 to create enough storage to power 1 million homes.

But it’s not going to come cheap, experts say. Southern California Edison estimates it will cost as much as $3 billion to create such storage, the LA Times reports.

Energy regulators are chomping at the bit. Some power grid operators have already had to dump wind power because the local grids had no room for it at the time it was generated. They may soon have to pay people not to generate power, according to Bob Foster, mayor of Long Beach.

The fear, experts say, is that the grid will collapse, potentially causing widespread blackouts. For that reason, Foster, who is a member of the board of the California Independent System Operator, which manages California’s grid, says he’s been working with regulators and power company officials to revamp the system. They hope to build additional networks of electrical lines, huge wind- and solar- plants and plants powered by natural gas that will hopefully keep the power running when renewable sources fail.

Part of the problem is the fragmented way grids are regulated. States will need to cooperate with each other if power is to move seamlessly throughout the system, and that has made some envision a larger role for regulators at the federal level. But to date, state regulators have not wanted to give up control. They may have to, experts say, if there’s any hope of achieving a goal of 80% of the nation’s power being generated by renewable sources within the next 35 years. So reports the LA Times.

To read the full LA Times article cited in this story, click here


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