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Wind and Solar Can Power Most of the United States, Says Study ( 417

An anonymous reader writes: The Guardian reports of a recent paper, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, that helps explain how wind and solar energy can power most of the United States: "The authors analyzed 36 years of hourly weather data (1980-2015) in the U.S. They calculated the available wind and solar power over this time period and also included the electrical demand in the U.S. and its variation throughout the year. With this information, the researchers considered two scenarios. In scenario 1, they imagined wind and solar installations that would be sufficient to supply 100% of the U.S. electrical needs. In the second scenario, the installations would be over-designed; capable of providing 150% of the total U.S. electrical need. But the authors recognize that just because a solar panel or a wind turbine can provide all our energy, it doesn't mean that will happen in reality. It goes back to the prior discussion that sometimes the wind just doesn't blow, and sometimes the sun isn't shining. With these two scenarios, the authors then considered different mixes of power, from all solar to all wind. They also included the effect of aggregation area, that is, what sized regions are used to generate power. Is your power coming from wind and solar in your neighborhood, your city, your state or your region?

The authors found that with 100% power capacity and no mechanism to store energy, a wind-heavy portfolio is best (about 75% wind, 25% solar) and using large aggregate regions is optimal. It is possible to supply about 75-80% of U.S. electrical needs. If the system were designed with excess capacity (the 150% case), the U.S. could meet about 90% of its needs with wind and solar power. The authors modified their study to allow up to 12 hours of US energy storage. They then found that the 100% capacity system fared even better (about 90% of the country's energy) and the optimal balance was now more solar (approximately 70% solar and 30% wind). For the over-capacity system, the authors found that virtually all the country's power needs could be met with wind, solar, and storage."

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Wind and Solar Can Power Most of the United States, Says Study

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  • use less energy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by js290 ( 697670 ) on Monday March 26, 2018 @11:36PM (#56331833)
    If we start using a lot less energy. Using less is the only clean energy. Nicole Foss on renewables @AutomaticEarth []
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The switch to CFLs and LEDs in the last decade has had a pretty significant impact on residential electric use. More efficient appliances coupled with hipsters never ironing their clothes has also contributed significantly.

    • False equivalency (Score:4, Informative)

      by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @07:57AM (#56332993)

      If we start using a lot less energy. Using less is the only clean energy.

      Talk about a false equivalency. Yes using less is ideal. It doesn't follow that all sources of power are equally bad however. It's clear that fossil fuels are irredeemably polluting. When you need to use energy (and we all do) then you want to use the cleanest form of power generation available to you.

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Monday March 26, 2018 @11:39PM (#56331845)

    C. M. bruns will not like this

  • Nuclear (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Monday March 26, 2018 @11:56PM (#56331875)

    It's not "kosher" to say this, but we really should have got back into nuclear 20 years ago. The nuclear technology of today is cleaner and safer and more efficient than anything out there. But people are still stuck on *old technology* and Fukashima and so forth when that's *NOT* the technology we would use today. The simple fact is that nuclear is really the only energy technology that can reliably fill the growing need for energy.

    • Nuclear is done. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Brannon ( 221550 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @12:20AM (#56331937)
      It's a huge capital investment, huge on-going maintenance, outrageously huge decommissioning costs, and the penalty for falling asleep at the wheel (i.e., hiring a few MBAs to improve 'efficiency') is catastrophe. It's also centralized and makes a nice juicy target for terrorism. Oh, and it costs more than solar or wind--once you fully account for all the actual costs. Westinghouse just went out of business (ask South Carolina).

      I'm guessing the future [for most of the US] looks like solar roofs with local battery storage, connected to a grid backed by natural gas peaking/backup plants and various other forms of utility power generation and storage.
      • Re:Nuclear is done. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @03:59AM (#56332415) Homepage Journal

        You just completely ignored the GP's point that "we're" stuck on old nuclear and wouldn't use that technology today but describing all the problems with old nuclear.

        Try here: []

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <> on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @07:53AM (#56332975) Homepage Journal

          New nuclear isn't much better. The old stuff was supposed to be meltdown-proof and totally safe. And even if we believe the new claims, the really safe and low waste reactors are all theoretical at this point. Thorium? Get back to us when you have spent several billion building and proving one without any major issues, and come up with a way to dismantle it at reasonable cost.

        • by hey! ( 33014 )

          The problem with Gen III and later reactors isn't confidence in their safety. The problem is that fracking has made new reactors economically unattractive. Natural gas is dirt cheap here in the US -- $3.50 per million BTUs. A natural gas plant can be constructed at 1/10 the cost per kw of capacity of a nuclear plant, and in a fraction of the time.

          The most recent US nuclear projects started back in 2008, before fracking really took off. Those projects actually received construction green lights from the N

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Soft ( 266615 )

      The simple fact is that nuclear is really the only energy technology that can reliably fill the growing need for energy.

      Technically you're right, but only if we develop both reliable industrial-scale breeder reactors and the technology to extract seawater uranium on a large scale. There's just not enough U235 to generalize the use of nuclear energy on a worldwide scale, so we need breeders to burn U238, and get more of it than current reserves. Not sure about thorium reserves, but that would also require b

      • You obviously have no idea how much lithium we have on the planet.
        Just saying ...

        • You obviously have no idea how much lithium we have on the planet

          I take it daily.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          In a few decades even the US will have a vast fleet of battery electric vehicles, and I expect vehicle-to-grid will become a popular feature due to being able to store solar power and get some feed in tariffs.

    • Re:Nuclear (Score:5, Informative)

      by careysub ( 976506 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @01:56AM (#56332133)

      Fortunately on a continent with a third of a billion people and a $18 trillion dollar economy, we don't need to have just one source of electricity.

      The levelized cost of nuclear power, cost over plant lifetime. is the most expensive form of electricity on the market. There is no dispute about it, any study will show this. So where ever possible you would Not want to use it, you would want to use one of the cheaper alternatives.

      So you can have a distributed system of power plants of many different types, with the cheaper ones providing most of the aggregate demand.

      And basic economics dictates that the cheaper power source will be deployed overwhelmingly.

      Solar/wind do fine most of the time, you can push over 80% without much difficulty.

      At worst then solar power deployment stalls at that point, with natural gas peaking plants taking up the slack.

      But this is a problem some 30 years in the future - they provided 7.6% of U.S. electricity in 2017, it is going to be awhile before the >80% problem is encountered.

      Ways will be found by then to push costs for gap-filling power below what is currently available, pushing the reasonable cost power gap closer to 100%. Perhaps we never get to 100% but keep use natural gas for that last little bit.

      Getting nuclear power plants into the picture requires altering economic decision making - imposing carbon taxes to make nuclear more cost-effective (but this does not help against wind/solar, its long term competitors), or mandating construction by legal compulsion (or have the government build them). These last two are more-or-less what France did, and China is doing.

    • Re:Nuclear (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Qwertie ( 797303 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @02:42AM (#56332241) Homepage
      More specifically, Fukushima and Chernobyl were "generation II" reactors, newer reactors are "generation III" (which achieve greater safety via expensive safety systems - hence the death of the dream of electricity "too cheap to meter").

      Soon we will have "generation IV" reactors, and in this category the grassroots favorite is Molten Salt Reactors [] or MSRs. It's odd to call these things "generation IV" actually - it's like referring to the jet engine as a "generation IV propeller". MSRs, which are liquid-fueled and salt-cooled, are on a totally separate technology path from traditional reactors that are solid-fueled and water-cooled. They achieve higher safety and lower cost simultaneously through a philosophy of "don't manage risks - eliminate them."

      The LFTR (liquid fuel thorium reactor) is the most well-known proposed MSR, and this has led to some confusion, because people sometimes think that the use of thorium is the main innovation, when in fact the molten salt is the main innovation. The main advantage of thorium is that the world supply is unlimited - we can never run out of it, making LFTR a fully sustainable technology. The advantages of molten salt reactors include high safety, lower cost, higher efficiency, high temperature (so they can use the same inexpensive turbines as fossil fuel plants), production of waste heat (which can be combined with desalination or negative carbon emission technology), ability to burn existing nuclear waste as fuel, and better load-following ability.
      • Re:Nuclear (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Gavagai80 ( 1275204 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @03:51AM (#56332403) Homepage

        It's easy for something to be cheap when it's still on the drawing board. The space shuttle was going to drastically reduce the cost of space flight, too, until it actually flew. Hopefully it all works out with generation IV, but we can't assume and plan on that.

        • by epine ( 68316 )

          The space shuttle was going to drastically reduce the cost of space flight, too, until it actually flew.

          Oh, come on. Nobody serious ever believed that. I was there where the sparkly unicorn farts were still fresh on the air.

          Generation IV nuclear cycles would certainly have extremely costly teething problems, but little I've seen there makes me roll my eyes like the space shuttle propaganda once did.

          Nothing defies economic common sense quite like sending human beings into outer space (times ten if you expe

      • Re:Nuclear (Score:4, Interesting)

        by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @07:02AM (#56332859)

        which achieve greater safety via expensive safety systems

        They do nothing of the sort. The safety systems in GenIII reactors are effectively off the shelf. Chemical plants install them by the dozen all the time. What becomes expensive is the regulatory overhead imposed on the project.

        My own anecdote installing a Triconex system in a power plant in Spain was that by the time we finished that god forsaken 6 year long project we got a lifecycle notice from the vendor saying the system is soon to be obsolete. I literally just finished installing such a system in a nuclear plant only to move to the very next project at a hydrogencyanide plant and pull out an identical model and age system in the form of an obsolescence upgrade project. (That took 2 months by the way).

        I never want anything to do with the nuclear industry again. On the upside the billable hours were huge. We never got anything done but boy did we get paid for it.

    • Re:Nuclear (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Gavagai80 ( 1275204 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @03:48AM (#56332395) Homepage

      We should've invested much more heavily in nuclear 50 years ago all around the world, and then we wouldn't be in the climate bind we're in today. But since this is today, frankly nuclear is an irrational investment today. That's partly because of the insane legal hoops nuclear plants have to clear which make it take decades to build a plant, but even that is partly due to their centralized giant-project nature. Wind and solar work at any scale, which makes it a lot easier to get them built.

      the growing need for energy

      It's important to note that the need for energy in the USA is -- for the first time since the invention of electricity -- no longer growing. That's one of the problems for nuclear, a nuclear plant has to replace a huge chunk of the local energy market at once whereas wind and solar can be added gradually as previous sources are retired.

    • And how do you solve the waste know the stuff that'll stay highly radioactive for a couple of millenia or even longer? Do you make Homer Simpson eat it with a spoon?
  • by Soft ( 266615 ) on Monday March 26, 2018 @11:57PM (#56331883)
    That study is quite interesting. However, if you account for the global energy consumption, especially in transportation, heating, manufacturing, etc., electricity is only a fraction of the required energy. This may, I'd even say must, change in an electric-car future; but this will increase a lot the electricity demand.

    This book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air [], although a bit dated, is a good reference on how much energy we actually consume, and what can possibly be produced with renewables and others. The conclusion agrees with TFA: North America probably can live on solar, wind and enough storage. Not that easily, but it seems possible.

    • Any analysis that is more than a couple of years old is very likely to be wrong.

      The cost of renewable energy has dropped significantly faster than predictions made just a few years ago. In the past 12 months, most, if not all bids for installation of renewable power have not required any subsidies.

      A trial offshore floating wind power generation system recently installed off the British Isles is producing more electricity than anticipated, which translates into lower cost of energy. Because it is floating an

      • by Soft ( 266615 )

        Any analysis that is more than a couple of years old is very likely to be wrong.

        The cost of renewable energy has dropped significantly faster than predictions [...]

        The book I mention is not about cost, but about available energy, as in e.g. how many kWh the sun is giving you over time per unit of area. That won't change; the efficiency of solar panels does, but the book already takes an optimistic stance, looking for fundamental rather than technological limits.

  • by atomicalgebra ( 4566883 ) on Monday March 26, 2018 @11:57PM (#56331885)

    Yeah we can get to 80% renewable with 150-200% times solar and wind capacity, HVDC and 12 hours of storage. It will be expensive and difficult. In California if you count all of our pumped hydro storage and if you include every battery in every phone and car we have about 23 minutes of storage. 12 hours of storage will be hard to achieve.

    Also due to continental weather patterns we would need weeks of storage to get to 100% renewable. 12 hours is not feasible and 14 times that will be near impossible.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DogDude ( 805747 )
      Yeah, lots of batteries and wires would be expensive, but certainly not "impossible". We can send people to other planets. We can build lots of wires and batteries. It is, quite literally, not rocket science. It's just a matter of willpower. Unfortunately, people are incredibly short-sighted, and incredibly selfish.
      • > We can send people to other planets.

        We haven't done such a thing yet.

    • There are other ways to store energy. As heat using a large storage tank of hot working fluid. As potential energy by pumping water up into a large tank during times of excess. Using heat storage (with sterling engine solar) would also help to minimize bird kills since the heat could be directed at the heat reservoirs instead of up to the engine itself. Hell you could use a giant flywheel on a motor that is directly solar powered using the principles of thermal expansion. Batteries arent the only thin
      • I mentioned pumped hydro. In fact pumped hydro accounts for 96% of all active tracked storage installations worldwide, with a total installed nameplate capacity of over 168 GW []. It is unlikely will be able to double our pumped hydro storage let alone increase it ~30 times for 12 hours of storage. Solar thermal has not functioned as well as people hoped. The capacity factor of solar thermal is poor. Ivanpah had a 20.5% capacity factor in 2016. I am also not convinced flywheels can store 1000's of GWh's.
        • by zieroh ( 307208 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @02:13AM (#56332171)

          It is unlikely will be able to double our pumped hydro storage let alone increase it ~30 times for 12 hours of storage.

          Why? And if not pumped hydro, why not increases in any (or all) of the other alternatives? What's the actual limiting factor?

          I'll tell you what the limiting factor is: it's your imagination.

          People right here on Slashdot have been saying for years that electric cars would never achieve enough range to be marketable, and yet here we are in 2018 with people driving around in them all over the world, and almost every manufacturer planning new electric models. The slashdot pessimists were just flat-out wrong. Shocking.

          If you've learned nothing else from slashdot, it's that the naysayers here are largely unimaginative dolts.

          • What we really could sell if the infrastructure supported it is all carbon (lithium is not the best solution for fixed batteries) "PowerWalls" for the home/business that could store and release energy back to the grid. People could reduce their power bill and have peace of mind wrt power outages.
  • by aaarrrgggh ( 9205 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @12:00AM (#56331889)

    Aside from the glaring issue regarding Transmission, I was surprised that 12h of storage had as much impact as it did. I had modeled an off-grid location on the leeward side in Hawaii and found I needed 72h of battery for the system to support 90% of the hours in the year with PV only, or 48h with a wind/PV mix.

    It would be interesting to see exactly what the production vs consumption map looks like to see what the real impact of transmission losses and capacity would be. As the wind turbines start to exceed 7MW, wind can become a much more stable resource.

    Also curious how they established "100%"-- does it build in capacity factors? Peak-day or annualized?

    • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @12:29AM (#56331965)

      There are 800 KV DC transmission lines [] being built in Europe and Asia that have losses of 3% per 1000 km. Very modest excess production capability can compensate for this, a mere 10% for a 3250 km run (far enough to take southwest solar energy to New England).

      • Plus a minimum of 3% at each end for inverting and rectifying. My point is that you need to include it in how you evaluate a system because you don’t have infinite lossless transmission capacity. Wind turbines in Wyoming would be hard pressed to provide all the power for the Northeast for two days in a storm.

        I don’t dispute the findings in concept— just wish that they could have accounted for one of the major holes... or that I could see the information myself to understand the impact.

    • If you can shift energy across the country for free it gets better than if you're "stuck" on an island and totally responsible for your own local conditions.

      The superconducting line they put in across New Jersey cools itself the whole way and the cooling costs less than the resistive losses would have otherwise. But those economics are only valid for the highest density areas, as least provably. Running that same line across Nebraska may not be cost effective at all.

  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @12:21AM (#56331941)
    if we could stop the 8 some odd wars we're fighting. We blow 600 billion a year more or less protecting our oil interests. But sad to say folks like war. I remember a story where Trump got a momentary bump in the polls from droping a $500k bomb in Afghanistan. And lots of folks want to go war with Korea and/or Iran. We'd need a huge change in how people think and vote to get around that. It's just frustrating, since we could tell OPEC to sod off if we'd just spend the money on our infrastructure.
  • "Renewable" energy is good, sure. But every energy source has its drawbacks. Solar panels take up lots of real estate, both solar and wind can kill wildlife, and some consider both to be unsightly. It's better, I think, to use all kinds of sources of energy, so that the drawbacks of a single source are not so pervasive. Even oil wasn't such a bad thing when there were only a few cars on the road.

    • by whoever57 ( 658626 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @01:17AM (#56332053) Journal

      Bullshit fossil fuel industry talking points...

      The USA has plenty of real estate that can be used for solar and the number of birds killed by wind turbines has always been vastly over estimated and a tiny fraction of the kills by domestic cats. Finally, the latest, larger, turbines kill even fewer birds per kWh generated.

    • by zieroh ( 307208 )

      and some consider both to be unsightly.

      More unsightly than a coal plant? More unsightly than a mountain in Kentucky [] that's been leveled, ground up, and re-deposited on the same spot as a giant pile of gravel? More unsightly than a nuclear plant on a river? (there are lots of them)

      I call BS. If "unsightly" is really the objection to renewable energy, I think I would like to kindly invite you to go fuck yourself.

      • We've actually got a nuclear plant on a river about 100 miles south of me. I think it looks... cool as hell. I don't find anything unsightly about it. To each their own, I guess
  • The Second Mate's name was Carter,
    By God, he was a farter,
    When the wind wouldn't blow and the ship wouldn't go,
    We'd get Carter the farter to start her.

    (to fill in the gaps between sun and wind)

    H2 technology is coming along nicely and could soon be powering vehicles and be used for storage.

  • by Michael Woodhams ( 112247 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @01:50AM (#56332117) Journal

    I wondered what they assumed about transmission losses. From the paper, last paragraph of introductory section:

    Perfect transmission and energy storage, with no losses or
    constraints, was assumed, yielding a best-case scenario for
    realizing the benefits of geographic anti-correlation of the
    resources and to allow isolation of the limitations associated
    purely with geophysical characteristics of wind and solar energy
    resources. Specific transmission constraints, higher-resolution
    resource data, energy storage inefficiencies, optimization of the
    choice of generation locations to minimize their mutual correlation
    as opposed to maximization of local energy production, and
    operational limits and market dynamics, among other practical
    considerations, will play important roles in determining the details
    of system- and site-specific design and operation of an actual
    electricity system of this magnitude.

    Looking up transmission losses in Wikipedia [] . A few numbers: 160km of 765kV transmission line has losses of 1.1% to 0.5%. Transmission losses in the USA were estimated at 6.5% in 2007.

    As this plan will require more transmission, losses would be higher, and you'd need to spend quite a lot to upgrade transmission lines. I think this study is a useful starting point, but should be read as "getting beyond 80% renewable is really hard" rather than "getting to 80% renewable is easy".

    Here is an interesting bit from the "discussion" section:

    One proposed, and modeled,
    U.S.-wide transmission system consists of an estimated
    34 000 km (21 000 miles; 7 lengths of the US from Los Angeles,
    CA to Portland, Maine) of line with a capacity of up to 12 GW.
    An installed cost of $1 MM GW^-1 km^-1 implies a capital
    expenditure on the order of $410 billion, as compared to >$1
    trillion that would be required to install 12 hours of storage in
    the US (mean demand is ~450 GW) assuming an installed cost
    at present of $200 per kW h (pumped hydro; most other
    systems (e.g. batteries, flywheels, etc.) have current costs in
    excess of $500 per kW h).

    So that gives some idea of the costs involved.

  • I ran the numbers a few years ago with very optimistic assumptions, and the land area required for the solar component is about 1/4 the size of New Mexico.

    Yes, it's "possible". It's just that no society has ever built anything that big before in the entire history of the planet. That doesn't make it "impossible" but it makes assuming that such a thing could be accomplished a huge leap of faith with nothing to back it up except for hope and wishful thinking. Possibly the Great Wall of China measures up in

    • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @07:09AM (#56332883)

      It's just that no society has ever built anything that big before in the entire history of the planet.

      A quick look at the earth from google maps will show that we have built many such things, not only flat covering surface area but also with multiple layers of vertical structure beneath.

      We just haven't built it as a single project in one place. You could put solar panels on every roof in America for less than the cost of the annual military budget. We don't have the construction capability to do so at this stage, but the point is don't be afraid to think big. A lot of problems are easily surmountable when broken down.

  • by rally2xs ( 1093023 ) on Tuesday March 27, 2018 @07:19AM (#56332897)

    ...when we estimate the need for future electrical energy usage by using historical electrical energy usage. Why? Electric cars. The demand for electrical energy should rise sharply if and when we get viable (cheap enough, with enough range and a short enough recharge time) electric cars. Converting all cars, trucks, ships, airplanes, and locomotives to battery power means an enormous activity in charging those batteries. We will be building wind generators to the point that absolutely every horizon in the country will look like fur, with wind generators taking the part of individual hairs. Its fortunate that they are beautiful / majestic, but still hoping to keep them off some of the notable scenic areas such as the Grand Canyon, half-dome, painted desert, etc.

Do not underestimate the value of print statements for debugging.