Three Myths About Renewable Energy and the Grid, Debunked

Renewable energy skeptics argue that because of their variability, wind and solar cannot be the foundation of a dependable electricity grid. Grid requires to maintain the energy all the time, but as Solar and wind are primarily dependent on the sun and the wind, in absence os which the grid would fail. Though the expansion of renewables and new methods of energy management and storage can lead to a grid that is reliable, clean and continuously available.

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As wind and solar power have become dramatically cheaper, and their share of electricity generation grows, skeptics of these technologies are trying to propagate several myths about renewable energy and the electrical grid failure. The myths boil down to this one point: Relying on renewable sources of energy will make the electricity supply undependable.

In reality, it is perfectly possible to sustain a reliable electricity system based on renewable energy sources plus a combination of other means, like improved methods of energy storage and management. A clearer understanding of how to dependably manage electricity supply is vital because current climate threats require a rapid shift to renewable sources like solar and wind power. This transition has been sped by plummeting costs of renewables — Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that solar and wind are the cheapest source for 91% of the world’s electricity — but is being held back by misinformation and myths.

Myth No. 1: A grid that vastly relies on renewable energy is unreliable.

Though agreed that solar and wind cannot provide for energy 24hrs a day and there will be grid failures if we rely on them solely, but current technology and energy storage solutions are advancing to a point where we can store energy at a much economical rate to maintain the grid when there is no wind or solar.

The indicator which is most often used to describe grid reliability is the average power outage duration experienced by each customer in a year, a metric known as “System Average Interruption Duration Index” (SAIDI).

According to this metric, Germany, a country where renewables supply nearly half of the country’s electricity — boasts a grid that is one of the most reliable in Europe and the world. In 2020, SAIDI was just 0.25 hours in Germany. Only Liechtenstein (SAIDI 0.08 hours), and Finland and Switzerland (SAIDI 0.2 hours), did better in Europe, where 2020 electricity generation was 38 percent renewable (ahead of the world’s 29 percent). Countries which were far more reliant on nuclear power like France ( SAIDI 0.35 hours) and Sweden (SAIDI 0.61 hours) did worse.

The United States, where renewable energy and nuclear power each provide roughly 20 percent of electricity, had five times Germany’s outage rate — 1.28 SAIDI hours in 2020. Since 2006, the share of renewable energy in the grid in Germany has nearly quadrupled, while its power outage rate was halved.

Myth No. 2: Countries like Germany must continue to rely on fossil fuels to stabilize the grid and back up variable wind and solar power.

The official data say otherwise. The year before the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan 2010 and 2020, a period of 10 years, Germany’s generation from fossil fuels declined by 130.9 terawatt-hours and nuclear generation by 76.3 terawatt-hours. These were more than offset by increased generation from renewables (149.5 terawatt-hours). Using energy-saving methods decreased the country's consumption by 38 terawatt-hours in 2019, before the pandemic cut economic activity, too. By 2020, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions had declined by 42.3 percent below its 1990 levels, beating the target of 40 percent set in 2007. Emissions of carbon dioxide from just the power sector declined from 315 million tons in 2010 to 185 million tons in 2020.

From the data, it is clear that as the percentage of electricity generated by renewables in Germany steadily grew, its grid reliability improved, and its coal-burning and greenhouse gas emissions substantially decreased.

Myth No. 3: Because solar and wind energy can be generated only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, they cannot be the basis of a grid that has to provide electricity 24/7, year-round.

While variable output from renewables is a challenge, it is neither new nor especially hard to manage. No kind of power plant runs 24/7, 365 days a year, and operating a grid always involves managing variability of demand at all times. Even with no renewables (which in fact tends to work more reliably and predicatably at different times and seasons, making shortfalls less likely), all electricity supply varies.

Seasonal variations in water availability and, increasingly, drought reduce electricity output from hydroelectric dams. In fact, predicting solar or wind output is more accurate than the rainfall for dams. Nuclear plants are shut down for refueling or maintenance, and big fossil plants are typically out of action roughly 7% to 12% of the time, some much more. Availability issues cause interrupted coal supply to coal plants which is again a completely unpredictable fact.

Climate- and weather-related factors have caused multiple nuclear plant interruptions, which have become seven times more frequent in the past decade.

Thus as we can see, all sources of power will be unavailable sometime or other. Managing a grid has to deal with that reality, just as much as with fluctuating demand. The influx of larger amounts of renewable energy does not change that reality, even if the ways they deal with variability and uncertainty need to change and are changing. Modern grid operators emphasize diversity and flexibility rather than nominally steady but less flexible “baseload” generation sources. Diversified renewable portfolios don’t fail as massively, lastingly, or unpredictably as big thermal power stations.

In a boost for renewables, grid-scale battery storage is on the rise. Read more.

The purpose of an electric grid is not just to transmit and distribute electricity as demand fluctuates, but also to back up non-functional plants with working plants: that is, to manage the intermittency of traditional fossil and nuclear plants. In the same way, but more easily and often at a lower cost, the grid can rapidly back up wind and solar photovoltaics’ predictable variations with other renewables, of other kinds, or in other places or both. This has become easier with today’s far more accurate forecasting of weather and wind speeds, thus allowing better prediction of the output of variable renewables. Local or on-site renewables are even more resilient because they largely or wholly bypass the grid, where nearly all power failures begin reducing transmission losses. And modern power electronics have reliably run the billion-watt South Australian grid on just sun and wind for days on end, with no coal, no hydro, no nuclear, and at most the 4.4-percent natural-gas generation currently required by the grid regulator.


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