This time last year, millions of Texans were shivering without power during one of the coldest spells to hit the central United States. For five days, power cuts left people unable to heat their homes, cook or even sleep. More than 200 people died in what is considered the country’s costliest winter storm on record, costing $24 billion in damage.
Twelve months later, the state’s power grid, although improved, is still vulnerable to weather-induced power outages.
“If we had another storm this year, like Uri in 2021, the network would descend,” said Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “It’s still a huge risk for us.”
Now, a recent study shows that power outages can be avoided across the country – perhaps even during intense weather events – by switching to 100% clean and renewable energy, such as solar, wind and hydraulic.
“Technically and economically, we have 95% of the technologies we need to do everything today,” said Mark Jacobson, lead author of the paper and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Wind, water and solar already account for around a fifth of the country’s electricity, although a full transition in many areas is slow.
The study showed that a switch to renewable energy would also reduce energy needs, reduce consumption costs, create millions of new jobs and improve people’s health.
For years, some have expressed skepticism about the viability of large-scale adoption of renewables, due to their costs. But Dessler said that while solar power was an expensive source of energy 10 years ago, it’s one of the cheapest today.
“Many people’s understanding of renewable energy is extremely outdated,” said Dessler, who was not involved in the research.
Wind power can also be very efficient and provides half of Texas’ power on some days – a fact he surprised podcaster Joe Rogan with when he appeared as a guest on Thursday’s episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience”.
“Solar and wind are the cheapest energy sources available,” Dessler said. “People don’t seem to understand that, and they also don’t understand that we know how to create a reliable grid that uses mostly renewable energy.”
In the recent study, Jacobson and his colleagues showed how to meet power demands every 30 seconds across the United States without power outages in a greener, more populous nation in 2050 and 2051.
In the simulations, they imagined all the vehicles to be electric or powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Electric heat pumps, water heaters, wind turbines and solar panels have replaced their alternatives to fossil fuels. The team also included new geothermal sources but not new hydroelectric plants.
They modeled network stability across the contiguous United States, including data from a weather-climate-air pollution model, which includes statistically typical climatic factors and weather patterns that occur in a region. given. Using energy consumption data from the Energy Information Administration, the team simulated energy demands for 2050-2051. The energy supply had to equal the energy demand every 30 seconds or the model would stop.
The team found that the actual energy demand dropped significantly by simply switching to renewable resources, which are more efficient. For the United States as a whole, total end-use energy demand decreased by approximately 57%. Annual household energy costs per capita were about 63% lower than in a “business as usual” scenario.
“Everything we do now using fossil fuels would be done using technology that runs on electricity,” said Anna-Katharina von Krauland, co-author and doctoral candidate in Jacobson’s lab. “The amount of energy needed to perform activities, essentially turning on lights or powering industrial processes, would actually be reduced if you used a more efficient energy supply.”
During an extreme weather event, the drop in power demand is important to help keep the grid online. In Texas, a full green transition would reduce average annual end-use energy demand by 56%. It also reduces peak loads, or the greatest amount of power one draws from the grid at a time. Jacobson said many homes would also have their own storage and wouldn’t need to depend on the grid as much.
The team also found that interconnecting power grids from different geographic regions can make the power system more reliable and reduce costs. Larger areas are more likely to have the wind blowing, the sun shining, or hydroelectric power flowing elsewhere, which can help fill supply gaps.
“The intermittency of renewables decreases as you look at larger and larger areas,” Dessler said. “If there is no wind in Texas, there could be wind in Iowa. In that case, they could overproduce electricity and they could ship some of their extra electricity to us.”
The study indicates that costs per unit of energy in Texas are 27% lower when interconnected with the Midwest grid than when isolated, as is the case today.
“In just about every area, we’re seeing it would be cheaper, more reliable, make better use of power if we were to expand the interconnect,” von Krauland said. She adds, however, that “even if each state were isolated on its own, it would still be possible to implement 100% wind water and solar power in each individual state.”
During the Texas winter, Jacobson said better-maintained wind turbines would also help maintain energy supplies. During the February 2021 cold spell, some frozen wind turbines were shut down due to a lack of de-icing equipment. (Coal, gas, and nuclear sources also stopped directly freezing equipment and contributed to a much larger energy drop.)
“On cold days you have a lot of wind, which is really good news because when it’s cold you have the demand for heating,” Jacobson said. “You actually get more power output on cold days.”
During the winter, low sunlight can also make solar panels less useful. In this case, wind turbines and solar panels are complementary energy sources. If both were to fail at some point, another energy source, such as geothermal or hydro, could come into play.
Batteries are also used to provide power when solar or wind power is low, but the team showed that long-lasting batteries are not necessary or useful for grid stability. Many 4-hour batteries on the market today can be connected to provide long-term storage, such as during power outages. This discovery is particularly useful because ultra-long-life battery technology may still be relatively far from commercialization.
“It’s wrong to think that renewables are unreliable because you’re not thinking about renewables per se,” Dessler said. “You think of them as part of a system. A stable grid that has lots of renewables will also have firm dispatchable power that picks up when renewables dwindle.”
The team’s simulations also suggested that California blackouts, like those in August 2020, could also be avoided at a lower cost. Installing more offshore wind turbines during the summer could provide power to help cool buildings. Transitioning to all clean, renewable energy could also reduce energy demand in California by 60%.
The team laid out plans for all 50 states on how to achieve 100% renewable energy.
In addition to improving grid stability, the study found that operating a clean, renewable grid could create nearly 5 million long-term full-time jobs, from construction to manufacturing to through indirect employment in companies. The systems would also produce cleaner air, which could reduce pollution-related deaths by 53,000 people a year and reduce pollution-related illnesses for millions of people by 2050.
“This is an incredibly important study,” said Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University who is not involved in the research. “Fossil fuel industries continue to argue that renewables are a dangerous experiment and that grid stability and reliability will continue to depend at least in part on fossil fuels. is not the case at all.”
Dessler agrees that he doesn’t think the findings of this study are “controversial at all.”
“Obviously it will work just because there is so much renewable energy available on the planet. From a physical point of view, there is no fundamental constraint here,” he said. . “The constraint is political. People have to come together and decide to do this, and that’s really what’s difficult.”
During the February 2021 cold snap, former Texas Governor Rick Perry said Texans would spend even more time in the cold and without power “to keep the feds out of their business” and thwart Democrats who want to propose new regulations.
About 15 states and territories and more than 180 cities have created policies increasing the amount of renewable electricity, but Jacobson hopes such findings will give policymakers confidence to pass laws and policies for a faster transition. Jacobson’s previous studies and work through his nonprofit The Solutions Project contributed to enlightened plans such as the Green New Deal and the state legislature.
“We need a very fast transition of 80% [of clean energy] by 2030 and 100% as soon as possible thereafter,” Jacobson said. “It really takes a large-scale effort by many people to solve this problem. It’s not a scientific study that’s going to solve the problem.”