The Polar Vortex And The Green New Deal: Theory Vs. Reality

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100% renewable energy by 2030. It’s an appealing idea, one that forms a basis for the Green New Deal. We need a “moonshot” approach, one that mimics the boldness of the Apollo Project that put the first human being on the moon — a national commitment that brought us all together in pursuit of a common dream. The climate emergency is growing more critical every day. Clearly, we fail to address it at our peril.

Wood Mackenzie solar power US
Animation courtesy of Joshua Rhodes/University of Texas at Austin for Inside Climate News

The polar vortex that descended on much of North America in January, bringing sub-zero temperatures with it, gave researchers an opportunity to study the demand for electricity during that period and the sources that met that demand. Their conclusion? Relying on renewables alone would have left periods of 18 hours or more during which the supply of electricity would have fallen far short of the demand.

The Wood Mackenzie Report

Wade Schauer, research director for Wood Mackenzie Power & Energy, tells Inside Climate News that in order for renewables to meet the polar vortex stress test, “You would need a lot more batteries in a lot more places.” How much more? There are about 11 gigawatts of battery storage available in the US today, he says. But to deal with the extraordinary demands created by events like the polar vortex, the electrical grid regions that include New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South would have needed 277.9 gigawatts of battery storage. That’s about double Wood Mackenzie’s current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040.

Getting there will require significant changes in the way America gets its electricity. That includes not only massive new wind and solar installations but also more long term battery storage and more transmission lines interconnecting the source of supply with the areas of demand. “In a modern power grid, all these advanced technologies are driving the need for more flexibility at all levels,” says David Littell, principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project and a former staff member for Maine’s utility regulator, who was not involved in the Wood Mackenzie study.

Schauer suggests it’s going to take more than lithium-ion batteries to meet the need for energy storage in the future. New technologies that have yet to be invented will be critical to the process but that won’t happen quickly. Things that happen in the lab take years if not decades to work their way into commercial production. He thinks the 100% renewable by 2030 advocated by promoters of the Green New Deal is unrealistic but could happen by 2040 with the right combination of public policy support and technological advances.

Politics and NIMBY

Politics may play a larger role than technology, Schauer says. To handle a big increase in wind, solar, and storage, communities must be willing to host those projects along with the transmission lines that move the electricity around. Interstate power lines are essential for moving electricity from places with the best solar and wind resources to the population centers. As more solar and wind farms are built, more lines will be needed. “I’m not here to say any of this is impossible, but there are some basic challenges to pull this off in a short period of time, mainly NIMBYism,” he says.

Better grid management tools will also make a significant contribution. Smart grid technology can turn down or turn off high demand energy users at critical times, stretching the available supply and so it goes further.

Should Nuclear Be Part Of The Green New Deal?

The Wood Mackenzie researchers take no position on the role of nuclear going forward. They do point out, however, that keeping America’s fleet of nuclear generating stations operating (not building new ones) would reduce the need for grid scale battery storage by 50 gigawatts — almost 3 times the installed capacity in America at the present time. In other words, those nukes can play a significant role in the 100% renewable energy plan. “If your goal is decarbonization, then nuclear gets you a lot farther than if you retire the nuclear,” Schauer says.

The Take Away

Designing an electrical grid is a lot like designing an automobile. Most cars use only about 12 horsepower to maintain an average speed of 55 mph. But a car with only 12 horsepower would be woefully underpowered and incapable of dealing with hills, kayaks on the roof, or towing a camping trailer. At a minimum, it needs about 10 times more horsepower available to meet the anticipated needs of every driver during its useful life.

A similar analysis applies to braking systems. What is enough for gentle stops in town is not nearly enough when you are careening down Mount Washington with 7 people on board and a snowmobile trailer behind. How much electricity is enough depends on a lot of factors. The hotter summers and colder winters that seem to be part of climate change need to be factored in as well.

The Green New Deal is a laudable initiative. At least it has people talking about what need to be done to limit the harm from a warming climate and for that it should be recognized. The fact that meeting its goals will be hard is no reason not to try. We really have no choice in the matter.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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