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Study: A Fully Renewable Energy Grid Is Too Costly For Now

Cross-border wind generation project Energía Sierra Juárez, at La Rumorosa, Tecate, Baja California is shown in this undated photo.
Martin Lemus, Fotografia Lemus
Cross-border wind generation project Energía Sierra Juárez, at La Rumorosa, Tecate, Baja California is shown in this undated photo.
Study: A Fully Renewable Energy Grid Is Too Costly For Now
Study: A Fully Renewable Energy Grid Is Too Costly For Now GUEST: David Victor, professor, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

For people concerned about the country's carbon emissions a renewable energy grid seems like an important solution. Can just wind, solar, and hydroelectric power sustain our entire electric grid without relying on cold natural gas or other sources. A study to the Dutch two years ago said yes and that it can be done at a low cost by 2050. Researchers at UC San Diego have a competing study out today saying we are still a long way off. Michael I spoke to one of the authors the codirector of UC San Diego's laboratory for international law and regulation. David is your study saying that it is technically impossible to have a 100% renewable energy grid. One of the biggest problems is how do you store energy during periods of the year that the energy can be moved around. It is technically extremely difficult and impossible to do 100% renewable. Our main criticism is that these studies that you are claiming will actually save them. This can be done in roughly 35 to 40 years. What are the big stumbling blocks what is some of the problems with what you have been done in the past. The paper that we are criticizing published a couple years ago claims the capacity for 10 or more very quickly with no environmental limits. That will be done all by saving money. We shall carefully that that is not true. The other study we are criticizing as it makes the assumption that people will respond when renewable energy output is lower. What will happen is when a renewable outback solar and wind and households in factories which is back often a man of energy they consume. For the vast majority of industry the keeps the economy live in a good health that is not have real friends behave. You in this paper, it basically a thought experiment at this point. Is a useful experiment to keep. It's useful experiment. What happens and what would it cost. In my mind much more interesting thought experiment are the ones that are being done right now return to look at what happens as we get a 50% renewables may be more. What happens when the interconnect grids and what happens if we had more storage to the system. Those thought experiments are not as extreme but are frankly more important because they are focusing on options that are real options that are pushing up. Iceland has a few. There's a huge amount in Iceland. Ireland is a very windy place. Energy demand is low. We completely accept that there are some markets and under usual circumstances so they can deal with the storage problem by relying on those other grids. The real interesting question is can you do this on a scale. Semper later said that those comments were aspirational and the executive want -- walked them back. It is too expensive. I think the clarification for semper was on point. The technology exists to do a lot of things in life if we really want to do them. The issue is how do you to come in an affordable way to when it comes to something as important we have to pay attention to cost. It will be astronomically expensive. That is our point is to get the technical analysis coupled up with the practical realities of how do you keep the grid reliable and what will it cost. What -- Which policymakers be looking at right now. They should be looking at goals for renewables as well as other sources of renewable carbon emissions. They should be looking at those ambitious goals and should be sure to read those goals in a way to set ambitious goals and then to would defer to real-world experience. They can see what is achievable because one of the fundamental points in our paper is that the technology is changing quickly. We do not know what is achievable. We do know is that it is certain to add a lot more to the grid

Study: A Fully Renewable Energy Grid Is Too Costly For Now
Solar panels, wind farms and hydropower facilities contributed 80 percent of the energy on the largest portion of California’s power grid on May 13, a record for renewable energy sources. But can wind, solar and hydroelectric power sustain an entire electric grid full-time?

Solar panels, wind farms and hydropower facilities contributed 80 percent of the energy on the largest portion of California’s power grid on May 13, a record for renewable energy sources. But can wind, solar and hydroelectric power sustain an entire electric grid full-time?

The debate over when a fully-renewable energy grid will be possible continues with a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers representing more than a dozen schools and research institutions in the U.S. and Sweden including UC San Diego.

One of the key problems of a totally reliable grid is keeping up with demand, even if winds slow or clouds cover solar panels. And storing electricity in batteries for those lulls can be expensive. A study two years ago co-authored by Stanford University professor Mark Z. Jacobson argued a 100 percent renewable grid is possible by 2050, with new ways of storing energy in soil or water allowing for a low-cost conversion. The paper was named one of the best of the year.

Now researchers, including David Victor, co-director of UC San Diego’s Laboratory for International Law and Regulation at UC San Diego argue Jacobson ignored important costs.

“Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power,” Victor and others wrote.

The new research also notes that Jacobson assumed nearly every building in the country would have an underground thermal energy storage system but didn’t account for the costs to install pipes, distribution lines and other infrastructure.

According to Victor, the technology theoretically exists to build a completely renewable energy grid, but at the moment only “unlimited resources” could guarantee a system that could meet any possible energy load.

These new findings come a month after Sempra Energy executive Patrick Lee said the technology existed for a 100 percent renewable grid and that building one was now an economic question. Sempra later said the comments, delivered at an energy conference, were “aspirational.”

Victor joined KPBS Midday Edition on Monday with more on the challenges of relying completely on renewable energy.