The old grid, beholden to massive, polluting baseload power plants, is being replaced by a nimbler, high-tech 21st century system oriented toward variable renewable energy.
There are no shortage of skeptics out there, even some among environmentalists and clean energy advocates, who are unconvinced that renewable energy can ever be the dominant–perhaps even sole–source of electricity generation.
The reasons for this skepticism vary. Some, for example, argue that the land needs for sufficient generation of wind and solar power are too great. This turns out to be an incredibly lame argument, but that’s the subject of a different article.
More frequent are the arguments that “baseload” power–large power plants that tend to run 24/7–are necessary to ensure reliable electricity and that the variable nature of some renewables–solar and wind–can’t provide that reliability. Then there’s the notion that the electrical grid can only accommodate a certain level of renewables, around 30-40%. Above that and the grid pretty much breaks down. These arguments are actually related and solved in the same way.
More recently, an argument has been circling among energy nerds–especially pro-nuclear energy nerds–that the integration of renewables into the grid reaches a peak for economic reasons: that renewables are limited by their cost. Not by their high cost, but by their low cost, or as one writer put it: solar and wind eat their own lunch. But that merely shows that not only must the technical nature of the grid change, and it can; but so must its economic nature, and it can too.
The electric grid in use today was mostly designed in the 20th century. Large baseload nuclear and fossil fuel plants were built, usually far from the largest electricity consumers (cities and large industry), and transported by huge (and not particular efficient) power lines. Those baseload plants had, and have, high capacity factors and run pretty much all the time, although nuclear reactors have to be shut for refueling for a few weeks every 12-18 months. Utilities try to arrange those shutdowns to occur during periods of low demand. During peak power needs–hot summer days in most of the country–smaller gas plants and in the old days even oil plants would be fired up to supplement the baseload levels.
And it all worked pretty well given the technology available at the time.
But, as we all now know all too clearly, that system had a price–a price not reflected in the cost of electricity. That system was and is killing us. Those large nuclear and fossil fuel plants are spewing out carbon dioxide and radioactivity and creating large quantities of dirty and deadly waste products that society doesn’t know what to do with.
Had the cost of those effects–which do have a price, a steep one–been incorporated into the price we and our parents paid for electricity, we probably would have moved to a clean energy system much faster. As it is, we no longer have much of a choice.