By Andrew Follett
July 13, 2017 - Rewiring the U.S. electric grid to handle more wind and solar power won’t be cheap or easy, according to a study published Wednesday by the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (AII).
The study found that the U.S. power grid can’t easily be replaced by a distributed smart grid that environmentalists favor. Efforts to update the electric grid to better handle variable energy output from wind and solar power haven’t been effective and would be expensive.
“It is probably a trillion dollar asset,” Brigham McCown, chairman of AII, told reporters during a press conference. “People for decades have talked about the need to modernize the grid and upgrade it, but quite frankly that hasn’t happened.”
“It is not gonna be cheap,” McCown added.
AII’s report calls for increased public and private investment in grid-related infrastructure, which they say is the only way for wind and solar sources to become a significant portion of the electricity mix. Wind power generated 5.6 percent electricity while solar provided 0.9 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Some folks have come out with reports suggesting that we don’t need a grid anymore, our research shows that’s not the case,” McCown said. “I think there’s going to have to be a combination of public investment and private investment.”
“As ratepayers, we have to be okay with the fact that we’re gonna spend more to have electricity generated from other [green] sources and ensure the stability of the grid,” McCown said.
AII didn’t estimate the exact price of investments needed to support new solar and wind power, but did say it would likely be expensive.
“We can’t put any sort of price tag on this,” Patrick Currier, an AII policy expert involved in the research, told reporters.”What the paper is trying to do is put forward some specific investments in technologies that are out there.”
The study found that replacing the entire U.S. power grid with a microgrid isn’t feasible, and that future electricity distribution systems will likely be a hybrid of the traditional grid and new microgrids.
“The goal here is to make the grid smarter,” McCown said. “The new system isn’t going to replace the old system. ”
In order for the traditional power grid to function, demand for energy must exactly match supply. Power demand is relatively predictable and conventional power plants, like nuclear plants and natural gas, can adjust output accordingly. Solar and wind power, however, cannot easily adjust their output on demand. They also provide power unpredictably relative to conventional power sources.
On an especially cloudy or windless day, the electrical grid can’t supply enough power from solar or wind alone. Wind and solar also run the risk of producing too much power, which can overload and fry the traditional power grid. This is why electrical companies will occasionally pay consumers to take electricity.
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is currently investigating how green energy undermines the reliability of the electrical grid. FERC believes there is a “significant risk” of electricity in the United States becoming unreliable because “wind and solar don’t offer the services the shuttered coal plants provided.” The agency is worried that environmental regulations that make operating conventional power plants unprofitable could compromise the reliability of the grid.
Green energy has already caused damage to the electrical grids of Germany and California’s electrical grid, potentially leading to massive blackouts.
California was forced to shut down its solar farms last March because they were producing more electricity than the state needed. Grid operators say this damaged the power grid, and the system will be incredibly vulnerable to damage and blackouts due to the excess power.