Can We Really get to 100% Renewable Energy?
The notion that entire communities and countries could be completely powered by renewable energy still seems like a pipedream to many. Not to those gathered at the first Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy conference in San Francisco earlier this month. To them, a fully renewable power system is not only achievable, but makes economic sense. And it’s already being accomplished in some places.
Organized by the 100% Renewable Energy Institute, based in Santa Monica, California, the gathering had its fair share of grassroots environmentalists. But it was peppered with esteemed scientists, eco-celebs (such as Frances Moore Lappe), and government officials (San Francisco mayor Edward Lee). Several representatives from the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) were there, as well, discussing the variety of smart grid tools – including demand response – necessary to wean large power grids off of fossil fuels that currently burned to balance the variability of wind and solar.
While Denmark is one of the few countries committed to a 100% renewable energy goal for electricity, heat and transportation, some local governments have already reached the 100% renewable threshold. Perhaps the most inspiring example is Rhein-Hunsruck in southern Germany, a district of roughly 100,000 inhabitants that will produce more than 100% of its own needs from solar, wind and biomass this year. By 2014, this rural district will be providing 236% of its own energy needs from renewables, and hopes to generate significant revenue by exporting excess carbon-free power to the open market. Rhein-Hunsruck has combined aggressive energy efficiency programs, which reduced the district’s overall electricity loads by 25%, with a shift to local and regional power generation from renewables, according to Bertram Fleck, chief administrative officer for the district.
Closer to home here in the U.S., the City of Greensburg, Kansas (pop. 781 ) is powered completely by wind power. It also boasts the highest per capita LEED platinum green buildings in the U.S., highlighting the synergy between energy efficiency and renewable energy to get to the 100% carbon-free energy nirvana.
Despite these victories, there are skeptics. Among them is Peter Lilienthal of HOMER Energy, a leading source for software to design microgrids in the developing world. While he notes that solar photovoltaic (PV) power is now cheaper than diesel fuel, the cost of shifting over entire islands or other remote microgrids to 100% renewable energy is – in Lilienthal’s view – too high and unnecessary. Of course, the beauty of these modular microgrids is that they can green up over time, incorporating a variety of different fuels and technologies.
Still, Michael Jacobson of Stanford University continues to pump out studies mapping out specific portfolios of different wind, water and sun (WWS) resources that could power entire states such as California or New York, and do not, according to his calculations, bust the bank. And a newly released report from the Civil Society Institute concludes increased reliance upon renewables will not reduce grid reliability, as is so often feared.
At the conference, I gave a presentation on microgrids and virtual power plants, two aggregation and optimization platforms that not only enable high penetrations of renewables, but will also be necessary for countries such as Germany and Denmark to meet their aggressive carbon reduction goals. Without such power grid innovations, shifting to a carbon-free energy future would be impossible.
A good first step in this green energy transformation would be to scale back what the Earth Policy Institute has estimated is $620 billion in government subsidies now flowing toward fossil fuel development. Eliminate those subsidies, level the playing field in energy markets, and the world suddenly looks like a different place.