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April 19, 2013

An End to Coal by 2050?



Generating power, in many cases, can generate just as much controversy as it can kilowatts. But a new report emerging from the Civil Society Institute suggests a combination of power generation concepts that aggregate to form a scenario that some may think of as too good to be true: a huge reduction in coal, nuclear, and natural gas power generation, yet a power grid no less reliable for the change.

The study released by the Civil Society Institute, prepared by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., advances the idea that, by 2050, the power grid as we know it could look wildly different, yet achieve that change without a significant difference in the amount of power being generated. According to the study in question, in 2050, the United States could completely stop burning coal for power, shut down fully one in every four nuclear reactors currently operating, and reduce the use of natural gas—instead switching to renewable sources of power like wind and solar—and still be able to meet or exceed demand in all by 0.06 percent of hours.

What's more, the survey even believes that a surplus of power would be available in most regions in 8.6 percent of all hours, allowing for a cushion for those times when renewable sources are less than optimal, essentially, when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.

An earlier study, released in 2011, projected that using what was called the “Transition Strategy” to renewable resources would ultimately save $83 billion at present value over the course of 40 years, and that's before considering the cost of carbon. As to how a renewable energy solution could both provide more energy than needed, and yet at lower costs, the research spelled it out. Senior energy analyst with the Civil Society Institute Grant Smith cited “recent improvements in both renewable technologies themselves and in the technologies that are used to control and balance the grid,” while Dr. Thomas Vitolo, analyst and the report's co-author, rings a note of assent, saying that “This study finds that the projected mixes, based entirely on existing technology and operational practices, are capable of balancing projected load in 2030 and 2050 for each region in nearly every hour of every season of the year.”

While this certainly sounds like a welcome development—and there's certainly no crime in augmenting the current power grid with renewable resources, especially at the individual household level—there are still clear issues involved here. First, the study notes “projected load.” Should something happen to make that projected load turn out to be less than actual load, shortages are likely. Power shortages result in several suboptimal conditions like rolling blackouts. Yes, there's some surplus in there, and that's a good thing that makes these conditions less likely, but this surplus depends on potentially long-distance transmission. Just because Arizona generates extra power one day, if that power should be needed in, say, Maine, can it get there in time? Can it get there at all? What of the grid itself, already aging and overtaxed; if a line goes down in Kansas, will it black out the Eastern Seaboard, or merely Chicago?

While the report itself certainly provides reason for optimism, there are still some concerns requiring consideration before making a big transition to renewables. Perhaps a better solution would be a gradual scaling-down of carbon-heavy sources rather than a rapid transition, just to observe the impact of moving to renewables. But still, there are certainly benefits to be had, benefits that are ignored at no small peril.




Edited by Rich Steeves

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