US Can Achieve 100% Clean Energy Without Nuclear Power, Stanford Professor Says


LADWP Pine Wind Farm and Solar Power Plant in the Tehachapi Mountains Tehachapi Mountains on Tuesday March 23, 2021 in Kern County, California.

Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Weather | Getty Images

A prominent Stanford University professor set out a roadmap for the United States to meet its total energy needs using 100% wind, water and solar power by 2050.

Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and director of its Atmosphere / Energy program, has been promoting the idea of ​​all renewables as the best way forward for more than a decade. His latest calculations towards this ambitious goal were recently published in the scientific journal Renewable Energy.

According to the study, the transition to a clean energy grid is expected to occur by 2035, with at least 80% of that adjustment completed by 2030. For the purposes of Jacobson’s study, his team took into account counts assumed population growth and improvements in energy efficiency to envision what this would look like in 2050.

Jacobson first published a renewable energy roadmap for all 50 states in 2015.

This recent update to this 2015 work has some notable improvements.

First, Jacobson and his colleagues had access to more granular data on how much heat is needed in buildings in each state over the next two years in 30-second increments. “Before, we didn’t have this kind of data available,” Jacobson told CNBC.

In addition, the updated data uses battery storage while the first set of calculations he made relied on adding turbines to hydropower plants to meet peak demand, an assumption that has proven to be true. impractical and without political support for the technology, said Jacobson.

Four hour battery reliability

In the analysis, Jacobson and his team used battery storage technology to compensate for the intermittency inherent in solar and wind power generation – those times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

The Achilles heel of a fully renewable network, according to many, is that it is not stable enough to be reliable. Power outages have become of particular concern, particularly in Texas this year and during the summer of 2020 in California.

This is where the four hour batteries come in to generate grid stability. “I discovered all of this just because I have batteries in my own house,” Jacobson told CNBC. “And I thought, oh, my God, this is so basic. So obvious. I can’t believe no one has figured this out.”

Mark Jacobson’s garage where his four batteries are located. Two cars are currently in charge as well.

Photo courtesy of Mark Jacobson

Jacobson said he has observed his batteries to stay charged if they are not plugged in when they are turned off.

To get more than four hours of charge, multiple four-hour batteries can be stacked to discharge sequentially. If a battery needs more output load than the battery can deliver at a time, the batteries must be used simultaneously, Jacobson told CNBC.

With this observation, Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford produced scenarios showing that it is possible to move to a fully renewable system without blackouts or batteries with ultra-long life battery technology.

This is the key, as ultra-long battery technology that would conserve energy for several days has yet to be commercialized. Start-ups like Form Energy are working to market such batteries.

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Planning, of course, is also essential to maintain the stability of the network. “Wind is changeable, solar is changeable,” Jacobson said. “But it turns out that, first of all, when you interconnect wind and solar over large areas, which is currently being done, you smooth out the supply a bit. So that’s because, you know , when the wind is not blowing in one place, it usually blows elsewhere. So over a large area you have a more regular supply of energy. “

Likewise, wind and solar are complementary. And hydropower “is a perfect backup because you can turn it on and off instantly,” he said.

In addition, changes need to be made to pricing structures to motivate customers to perform energy-intensive activities during off-peak hours.

“The response to demand is a very important part of maintaining the stability of the network,” said Jacobson. “It’s used a bit today. But in a lot of places, in a lot of states in the United States right now, the price of electricity is constant all day long … and that’s a problem.”

Calculation of breakdowns

So far, Jacobson and his team have run simulations for four-hour fully renewable battery roadmaps for six individual states – Alaska, Hawaii, California, Texas, New York, and Florida, and the 48 contiguous states taken together. . (For the rest of the states, Jacobson has rough simulations, which are available here.)

According to its models, California’s energy mix would include 14.72% onshore wind power, 18.28% offshore wind, 21.86% rooftop solar panels, 34.66% solar panels operated by a public service, 5.32% hydroelectricity, 2.91% geothermal electricity and 0.25% wave energy.

Texas would be made up of 37.66 onshore wind turbines, 14.77% offshore wind, 20.87% rooftop solar, 23.85% utility operated solar panels, 0 , 1% hydroelectricity and 0.19% wave energy.

Jacobson and his colleagues use three types of models for the calculations.

First, they use a spreadsheet model to project the standstill energy demand in each sector of each state through 2050, and then convert the standstill energy demand in 2050 to electricity supplied by the wind. , water and solar.

Second, they use a weather model to predict wind and solar fields in each state every 30 seconds. This weather forecast model runs on a supercomputer and is written in Fortran computer language.

And the third element of its modeling corresponds to the energy demand of 2050 with the meteorological modeling of the energy that can be supplied by wind, water and the sun every 30 seconds. The third component is also written in Fortran, but this part of the process can run on virtually any computer.

The resulting models do not use fossil fuels, carbon capture, direct air capture, bioenergy, blue hydrogen, or nuclear power.

And in this, Jacobson’s roadmaps are different from many clean energy proposals, which advocate the use of all possible technologies.

“So we’re trying to eliminate air pollution and global warming, and ensure energy security. So those are the three goals of our studies,” Jacobson told CNBC. And that “is a little different from a lot of studies that focus only on greenhouse gases. So we are trying to eliminate air pollution as well and ensure energy security as well.”

Addressing these three problems has been Jacobson’s goal for over a decade. His first major work in the field was published in 2009 in Scientific American magazine, and four years later he appeared on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” to promote his renewable-only approach. Jacobson and longtime progressive political candidate Bernie Sanders co-wrote an op-ed on clean energy in The Guardian in 2017.

Fight blackout fears

Jacobson knows that his point of view is not the strongest. The promise of next-generation nuclear power plants, for example, has recently garnered public and private funding.

Nuclear innovation is “primarily driven by people in the industry, people like Bill Gates, who has a huge investment in small modular reactors,” Jacobson said. “He has a financial interest. And he wants to be known as someone who is trying to help solve the problem.”

Gates responded to criticism that he is a “technocrat” seeking to solve climate change with new innovations, instead of political legislation supporting technologies like wind and solar that already exist, in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s “60 Minutes” earlier this year. “I wish all of this funding for these companies wasn’t necessary at all. Without innovation, we won’t solve climate change. We won’t even get close to it,” Gates said.

In addition, the time to market for some of these technologies is too long to be useful. Gates’ advanced reactor company TerraPower announced in November that it has chosen the border-era coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, as the prime location for its first demonstration reactor, which it aims to build in ‘by 2028.

“Even though it’s seven years old, it’s just a demonstration plant,” Jacobson said. “It’s not even close to a commercial factory and at the scale we need.”

TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque said the technology, especially the Natrium nuclear reactor, will make a significant difference in the fight against climate change.

“Natrium technology was chosen as the primary driver of TerraPower’s technologies because we believe it will be operational in time to provide a significant advantage towards the country’s decarbonization goals,” Levesque said in a statement.

Winning over clean energy skeptics who fear blackouts is a challenge, but Jacobson believes he can convince people to accept that a future like the one he modeled is possible.

Renewable solutions for ships and long-haul aircraft are not yet available, he said. “But these are on the drawing board. And we know that technically it can be done just as these haven’t been marketed.”

Education is a key barrier, according to Jacobson. “I’m optimistic. But what I find the biggest difficulty is the fact that this is an information problem, because most people don’t know, most people don’t. people are not aware of what is possible, ”he said.

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