With climate changing forcing the hand of the world’s top innovators, what poses to be the most promising renewable energy to supply the bulk of the US grid?
Wind power, nuclear, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar – all of these industries are entrenched in a deep battle to meet the future needs of the global energy market. While some countries like Costa Rica and Finland have managed to run completely off of renewables, the US is a little more slow-growing in the industry. With that said, renewables are posed to supply US power in the future, perhaps at the end of our lives. Geographically speaking we are seeing growth in individual renewables fields like wind and hydroelectric power generation, but the solution to US-based renewables is still being sought.
Even considering the conglomeration of renewables technologies that exist across the US today, we can speculate and predict where our energy sector is headed. In 2015, renewables accounted for 13.44% of the total domestic energy production, an impressive number considering those of even just 10 years ago. Currently, hydroelectric power makes up the largest portion of the renewable energy grid, about 51% in 2015. A close second to hydroelectric power in the renewables markets is wind power at 34%. The key thing to note here is that the leading 2 power generation sources are geographically constrained – thus lies the first problem in the U.S. renewable energy pursuit.
Geographically speaking, the U.S. is quite spread out; it could arguably be one of the most climate-diverse countries in the world as well. Hydro and wind power can be great renewable energy producers for key geographic locations, but getting that energy to far off cities and residencies isn’t yet economically feasible. This means that for locations without access to adequate wind and hydroelectric power, they are stuck to use coal, or other renewables, which brings us to solar.
For the most part, solar energy is available to the same extent across the globe, independent of geographical location. Solar currently makes up only 5% of the total renewable energy market, which is close to nothing when you consider that means it is only 5% of 13.5% of the total U.S. energy sector (.6% total). The main problems holding solar back is the high entry cost and the low efficiency. For single homes, solar roofs or roof tiles can make sense, but only when examined in the long term. Relative to coal, solar is rather expensive in most of the U.S. However, solar is one of the few energy sources that can be used anywhere, which means it may hold significant potential to the future of U.S. power.
Digging into solar energy even further, can it be scaled up to large solar power plants? Well, yes and no. Globally solar power plants are emerging, with the largest being 648 MW. The problem with solar power plants is the amount of space needed to build them. This isn’t a problem in countries, or even U.S. states, where large open spaces are available rather close to big cities; the Topaz 550 MW solar farm in California being an example. However, for most of the U.S., population is widely spread out which means centralizing solar plants is hard. What shows more promise in solar for the U.S. is the act of decentralizing the power grid. In other words, each house or community would produce power for themselves and feed excess back into the grid. You may not think this is feasible, but it’s already happening – in Hawaii.
Due to the isolation of Hawaii, energy costs are high (~35 cents/KWh). Along with the impressive solar insolation in the area, it has created a market perfect for solar power. Residents have been installing solar panels like children buying candy, with one slight problem. A disgruntled candy man – the energy companies. The energy grid was designed to flow to houses, not the other way around. This has become such a problem that the power companies in Hawaii have had to regulate the installation of solar systems so they can manage upgrades to the system to enable 2-way flow. Through the study of this effect in Hawaii, we can forecast the problems that the rest of the U.S. market might have when widely implementing solar.
So, solar energy shows a lot of promise to supply energy to the U.S. regardless of location, but the transition won’t be fast … or cheap. To answer the overarching question we have posed in this post, all of them. The U.S. energy grid is like no other across the world. Fully supplying our power needs with renewables will be sectioning off-grid areas and assigning them to specific renewable sources, whether that be wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, biofuel, etc. With that management on the larger scale and small scale solar implementation, we may see renewables overtake fossil in the next 30 years.