The Science of Sustainability

Those Intermittent Renewables – Part 1

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California's wind power. Credit: Elizabeth Pepin.

When it comes to renewable power, California has had one main message: bring on the solar power, bring on the wind turbines! California and the country are heading fast towards a clean energy future. But renewables aren't perfect. As wind, solar, and other nature-dependent technologies start to make up a bigger and bigger part of our electricity mix, power providers are thinking about how to deal with a very real problem: you can't tell nature when to produce.

The issue with these variable, intermittent sources of power is that electricity is a "just in time" commodity: you use it as soon you make it. When you flip on the light switch in your house or push start on your electric dryer, a power plant somewhere is whirring away right at that moment, creating those electrons for you to use.

In most of California, that complicated balance is coordinated by the California Independent System Operator, or ISO, a nonprofit that serves as a link between power generators and the utility, such as PG&E. Every four seconds, the ISO "takes the pulse" of the grid to make sure that the supply of electrons flowing out of the power plants matches the demand for electricity. If there's a mismatch, the ISO can tell plants to cut back or ask other ones to turn on.

That's not an instantaneous process, though. What makes the ISO's job complicated is that power plants have different levels of responsiveness. Nuclear plants, for example, are slow to turn on or off, so they usually just hum away at a relatively constant rate, providing "baseload" power – the minimum amount of electricity we always need. Other plants, including hydroelectric and natural gas, can ramp up and down quickly throughout the course of a day, as factories switch on their machinery and air conditioners rev up.

Unfortunately, renewables such as wind and solar are even less accommodating. The wind blows when it blows – often at night, when demand for electricity is low. The sun is more predictable, but passing clouds can change a solar panel's output, and just because we know when the sun will be high doesn't give us any control over it. Put too much of this kind of energy on the grid, and the system stops being reliable (though researchers disagree about how much exactly is "too much").

According to California's policies, more solar and wind is what's in store. The state has an ambitious goal of getting 33% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. So how can power providers make sure the right amount of juice is flowing through the grid when more of those electrons come from sources you can't "dispatch" on-demand? One answer might be energy storage. Stayed tuned for an upcoming post on that.

 

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Rachel Zurer

About the Author ()

Rachel Zurer is an intern for QUEST. Originally from Washington, DC, she's been steadily making her way further west and deeper into the world of science. After earning her B.A. at Duke University, she spent two years as a crew leader with the Utah Conservation Corps, building trails, killing weeds, and learning first hand about the awesomeness of nature. Then she moved indoors to become the Gallery Programs Coordinator for the Utah Museum of Natural History. Now a Berkeley resident, she's pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing through Goucher College. She's thrilled to be helping explain cool science for people through as many types of media as possible