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Green Energy: Let’s Do The Quickest, Smartest Things First

What are the quickest, smartest things regarding green energy that society should do first?

Wind turbines in Palm Springs, California. February 16, 2022. Photo by Fritz Hasler

In short, the quickest, smartest, greenest, most economical way to produce electricity is now from wind, water, and solar. See: Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything by Mark Z. Jacobson.

However, in developed countries, no additional large-scale hydroelectric dams can be built. It may be economical to build thousands of small-scale hydroelectric plants at small dams or use river current turbines in rivers around the world. If not, then hydroelectric power production cannot be substantially increased. Overall, though, it is hard to get these as competitive as wind and solar power, while wind and photovoltaic solar farms are generally a much more economical way to produce electricity than coal, and, with fossil gas prices soaring, than gas. This makes wind and solar the only essentially emission-free way to take over the bulk of electricity production from fossil fuels quickly and economically.

Power from photovoltaic solar farms and wind farms can go from planning to production in only a few years, and there is no fuel cost, no CO2 release, and almost no water use once in production. Note: all electricity production from fossil fuels use the thermodynamic process, which requires copious amounts of water. In a world where water is in increasingly short supply — and especially in desert regions, where there is no water — wind and solar PV power production have the huge advantage that they require no water.

In countries like the US, there are expansive deserts where solar farms can be built on land with little other potential use. In arable regions, it is possible to mix solar panels with agriculture, where the crops actually benefit from the shade of the panels on days when the sun is burning hot at midday.

Similarly, pedestals take up a very small proportion of the land in a wind farm, so they can be sighted in almost any rural area with little disruption of agriculture.

Photovoltaic solar farm. Photo courtesy of Lightsource bp.

What are the most important downsides to wind and solar? The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun is much reduced in high-latitude winter and is much reduced at dawn and dusk. Also, it goes without saying — the sun doesn’t shine at night. Furthermore, it may be difficult to run power lines to new wind and solar farms.

Obtaining rights-of-way for new power lines is a very time-consuming problem. Therefore, it makes it advantageous to site new wind and solar farms near fossil and nuclear fuel power plants that are being decommissioned, because the power lines are already in place.

Wind and solar are so economical that it makes sense to overbuild them: Then you still have enough production at the times of less sun in morning, evening, and in winter. You will also have adequate production from wind farms during times of light wind. This is the least expensive and quickest way to address part of the issue of the intermittent nature of wind and solar. (Also, you can use the excess during optimum conditions to make green hydrogen).

Note: It is far more economical to make massive investments in wind and solar ASAP to halt the emission of CO2 than to try to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere once it is already there.

How do we deal with the rest of the problem of the intermittent nature of wind and solar?

There are no economical ways to address all of this problem quickly with proven technology that is emission free. Therefore, it may be necessary to retain fossil gas electric peaker power plants until proven methods of energy storage and transmission can be built out or new methods developed.

  • The only method of storing electricity that can be built out quickly is with basically the same battery technology used for electric vehicles. Huge grid-scale battery installations are already in operation around the world. These facilities are extremely important to compensate for short time scale fluctuations in power demand and to maintain power quality. However, they are not nearly big enough to supply power through the nighttime hours, to say nothing of a lull in wind that may last for days. Also, there is already incredible demand for these types of batteries for EVs and private homes. Therefore, it may take many years for battery production to increase to the level necessary to build out the optimum size of these installations around the world. Note: Special battery technology has been developed specifically for stationary grid-scale faculties that is different than that required for light EVs, which could address part of the problem.
  • It seems to me that once wind and solar are built out to their maxima, all hydroelectric dams could be operated to produce 80% of their power at night to make up for the nighttime solar power gap. This could be done immediately with no additional construction or investment. Hopefully the variation in river flow would be small enough to not have severe ecological consequences.
  • PV solar power production has the advantage that it has its maximum at the same time air-conditioning power demand is at its maximum.
  • The only conventional method for long-term storage of electricity is pumped hydro. There are a few facilities in operation in the Eastern US, but to build more requires the boring of miles-long large-diameter water viaducts for each facility, which is a very time consuming process. Maybe Elon Musk’s boring technology could help alleviate this problem.
  • In the US, the wind lull at wind farms could be totally solved by adequate long-distance east/west transmission of electricity. Weather systems go through multiple east-west cycles across the US, so that there will always be at least two or three areas of maximum wind at any given time. The direct current vs alternating current battle between Edison and Tesla was won by Tesla and alternating current over 100 years ago. However, high-voltage direct-current long-distance transmission of electricity is much more efficient than alternating current and can be run underground and underwater. A transcontinental east/west high-voltage DC “super highway” could be built along railroad rights-of-way with little of the siting issues of above-ground powerlines. This could totally compensate for the intermittent nature of wind farms in the US and could significantly help with the nighttime gap in solar power.
  • With enough bandwidth, the Transcontinental High Voltage DC Superhighway could reduce the nighttime gap in solar power. It could bring solar power from the West Coast to the East Coast 4 hours longer and supply power for the evening peak demand for the eastern US states. Conversely, morning power from the East Coast could shorten the nighttime gap in solar power on the West Coast by 4 hours.
  • Taller, larger wind turbines onshore and particularly offshore will greatly increase the production and reliability of wind farms. The explanation: Wind speed is near zero at ground level and increases with altitude to the ~100 mph jet stream at ~40,000 ft. Therefore, the taller the wind turbine, the greater the wind speed and the greater the consistency.
  • Wind over the ocean is also higher speed and more consistent than over land. There are no trees, no hills, and many fewer other obstacles over oceans that would decrease the wind speed. The US has been very slow to develop offshore wind farms, which are common in Europe and China, but the US is just starting to scale up offshore power production.

The most urgent need for conventional and novel technology development is in the area of energy storage and transmission. Some examples:

  • Hot sand silo storage.
  • Compressed CO2 storage.
  • Concentrated solar with molten salt storage.
  • Hydrogen electrolysis efficiency improvement for energy storage.
  • Pumped-hydro additions to hydro-electric dams.
  • Buildout of long-distance electrical transmission lines to bring the electricity from new wind and solar farms to their customers and from one region to another.

For the rational for not including “green” energy sources other than wind, water, and solar, again, see: Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything by Mark Z. Jacobson.

 
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Arthur Frederick (Fritz) Hasler, PhD, former leader of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization & Analysis Laboratory (creator of this iconic image), and avid CleanTechnica reader. Also: Research Meteorologist (Emeritus) at NASA GSFC, Adjunct Professor at Viterbo University On-Line Studies, PSIA L2 Certified Alpine Ski Instructor at Brighton Utah Ski School.

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