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Why investments in clean, renewable energy will avoid blackouts at a low cost

President BidenJoe BidenManchin throws cold water on using budget reconciliation Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate Omar slams Biden admin for continuing ‘the construction of Trump’s xenophobic and racist wall’ MORE recently proposed investing the United States in a clean, renewable energy future. His plan follows on the heels of dozens of scientific studies concluding that transitioning the U.S. and world will save consumers money, create jobs, save lives and keep the grid stable in addition to reducing climate damage.

Specifically, President Biden proposes:

  • spending $100 billion on the electric grid and $174 billion on electric vehicles
  • extending tax credits for wind and solar
  • constructing and retrofitting energy-efficient buildings
  • researching energy storage, floating offshore wind, and hydrogen
  • jump-starting substantial offshore wind

Whereas the funding is not nearly enough for a full transition across all energy sectors (electricity, transportation, buildings and industry), it is a solid first step. We need about $9.2 trillion for a full transition. This will pay for itself through energy sales over time.

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Many, though, are concerned about whether the grid can stay stable with only clean, renewable energy running through it. This question came to the forefront after recent summer blackouts in California and winter blackouts in Texas.

First, what is clean, renewable energy? It is energy that is both renewable and results in no emissions of health- or climate-affecting air pollutants (thus involves no combustion).

Clean, renewable energy is really a system that consists of wind-water-solar (WWS) electricity and heat generation. It also includes storage of electricity, heat, cold and hydrogen; electric appliances, machines and equipment; and a well-interconnected and managed transmission and distribution grid. WWS generation includes onshore and offshore wind, solar photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, geothermal electricity and heat, hydropower, and tidal and wave power. A WWS system does not include natural gas, biomass, biofuels, carbon capture, direct air capture, nuclear or geoengineering, since these are all dirtier and/or more dangerous opportunity costs relative to WWS.

So, how does 100 percent WWS keep the grid stable? By a combination of several methods:

  1. Wind and solar are intermittent (the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine). However, wind and solar are also complementary (when the wind isn’t blowing during the day, the sun is often shining and vice versa). Thus, combining wind and solar smoothens the power supply versus wind or solar alone.
  2. Similarly, combining wind over long distances or solar over long distances smoothens the supply of either versus wind or solar at one location.
  3. Building more wind turbines in cold climates also increases reliability because, on average, winds become stronger when temperatures drop.
  4. Building offshore wind in coastal areas helps because offshore wind is usually less variable than onshore wind and often peaks when energy demand peaks.
  5. Geothermal (from the heat of the Earth) electricity, where it exists, provides a flat source of supply.
  6. Gaps in wind and solar supply can often be filled by electricity from hydropower, batteries, pumped hydro storage, flywheels, compressed air storage and gravitational storage.
  7. Electrifying transportation, buildings, and industry reduces power demand significantly, making meeting demand with WWS supply easier. For example, electric heat pumps for air and water heating and air conditioning reduce energy use by a factor of four versus natural gas heaters. Similarly, electric vehicles use one-fourth the energy as gasoline vehicles.
  8. Increasing energy efficiency in buildings by reducing heat and cold loss through doors and windows; using LED lights; using energy-efficient appliances; and using electric induction cooktops helps to reduce energy needs.
  9. Increasing district heating allows heat to be stored underground or in water pits for months at low cost.
  10. Using excess WWS either to produce heat or hydrogen that is stored reduces costs. Hydrogen will be used primarily for long-distance planes, ships, trains, trucks and military equipment and some industrial processes like steel production.
  11. Using demand response, where utilities give people and businesses incentives can shift the time of their energy use.

I’ve studied the use of these techniques in 143 countries and the 50 states and found that the grid can stay stable everywhere, including in California and Texas, with 100 percent WWS.

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A transition to 100 percent WWS not only avoids blackouts, but for the U.S., it reduces energy needs by 57 percent, annual energy costs by 62 percent, and annual energy plus health plus climate costs by 86 percent while creating 6.5 million more long-term, full-time jobs than lost and saving 53,000 lives per year from air pollution in 2050. The lower annual energy costs with WWS are due substantially to the fact that we need much less energy with it.

In addition, such a transition reduces energy insecurity. What is energy insecurity? The four main types include (1) the economic, social and political instability that will result when fossil fuels run out; (2) the risk of large blackouts upon the failure of centralized power plants versus the lesser failures of distributed wind and solar; (3) the reliance on fossil fuels from foreign countries and the resulting supply uncertainties and price fluctuations; and (4) the environmental devastation due to combustion fuels. For example, air pollution, mostly from fossil fuels and bioenergy, kills 7 million people per year worldwide and 78,000 per year in the U.S. today. 

Also, the U.S. has 1.3 million active and 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells, with 50,000 new wells drilled every year. The fossil fuel industry, through these wells, power plants, gas stations, refineries and millions of miles of pipes, occupies 1.3 percent of U.S. land. If we continue with fossils, we will need to keep drilling, destroying state after state, until fossils run out. Transitioning to WWS reduces land needs substantially.

In sum, not transitioning to 100 percent WWS increases costs, reduces job, and increases energy insecurity. To eliminate air pollution deaths as fast as possible and to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming since the 1800s, we need to transition all energy sectors to WWS quickly — with at least 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent ideally by 2035-2040. We similarly need to eliminate non-energy emissions, which are about 10 percent of air pollution emissions and 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, we have 95 percent of the technologies we need. We do not need miracles. We need simply to deploy.

Mark Z. Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. He works on climate, air pollution and clean, renewable energy solutions to these problems. He is the author of 170 peer-reviewed scientific papers and five books, including “100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything.” Follow Mark on Twitter: @mzjacobson