9 November 2017
The Future of Energy
The perpetually moving wheels of progress stop for nothing. They turn day after day, year after year. Technology has revolutionized countless industries, from the manufacturing of automobiles to the harvesting of crops from a farm. The same is true for our electric grid. Where coal once reigned supreme, it is being slowly supplanted by greener, more economic power sources such as natural gas and renewables, like wind and solar. As the world heads into an exciting future of renewable energy, the question is simple. Given the power output of renewables is largely dependent on environmental variables, how do we maintain the reliability of the power grid as we know it today? A solution exists, and it might even bolster the American economy in the process.
To address any given issue, one must first understand the problem that calls for a solution. The way our grid has historically functioned under primarily coal energy has been simple. The more fuel that feeds the power plant (in this case coal), the more energy is produced. Natural gas and oil power plants also operate on a very similar principle, as do thermo-nuclear reactors to an extent. This creates a very reliable means of increasing electrical production as demand requires, and decreasing it during off-peak hours. Unfortunately, renewable energy throws a wrench into this system. The power output of solar and wind cannot be scaled up or down on demand, as is reliant on certain environmental variables. In the case of solar, this is reliant on time of day, cloud cover, and the orientation of the sun relative to the solar panels (Astbury 211). Wind energy has fewer variables to worry about, but relies entirely on the wind strength conditions at its given location. Because of this variance in power output, a power grid constructed purely of renewables and emissions free sources of power would seemingly prove unreliable. Fortunately, there are an array of potential options.
There is a wide array of potential solutions to stabilize the power output of a largely renewable based electrical grid. Some have advocated for an all or nothing approach, in which a single option must be used across the board. Fortunately, our nation is not constrained to a single option, as there are many. Some are best suited to certain geographical areas, where others are not. The first option is extremely simple. Say one has a grid largely comprised of solar power in Nevada. During the day, a significant amount of power is generated, yet none is created at night. For a largely solar powered grid to be successful, one must find some way to store the power generated during the day, so that it can be utilized during the night. To do this, a very simple technology already exists that the public has most likely already heard of: hydroelectric power, or more specifically, Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity. Where conventional hydro-electricity is a power generation method in and of itself, pumped storage hydroelectricity is an energy storage medium instead. During the day, solar panels (or any other form of renewable, such as wind) power a series of water pumps, elevating water from a low-lying reservoir, into a higher lying one. At night, water is then lowered from the high-lying reservoir into the lower lying one, passing through a hydroelectric turbine generator on its way down, thus creating electrical power after dusk (Rehman 588). While this is perhaps not the most efficient electrical storage medium, the mechanics behind it are simple, and it has already been implemented in certain areas successfully.
The next potential energy storage medium is one most are already very familiar, albeit on a much smaller scale: batteries. Rather than taking electricity, storing it in a mechanical medium (pumped storage hydroelectricity), and then converting it back into electricity, batteries allow one to store electricity as electricity, and it stays that way. This energy storage technique can be somewhat cost prohibitive, as high capacity batteries are still expensive to manufacture, as many require rare earth elements such as lithium. A significant advantage to this approach, however, is the sheer simplicity of the storage medium. Unlike pumped storage, batteries do not require water, a complicated pump system, hydroelectric turbines, or reservoirs. Such a system is currently being actively developed and installed for various utility companies by Tesla corporation (Lambert).
Using a combination of the aforementioned electrical storage mediums may prove invaluable to efforts to construct a truly next generation, sustainable power grid. To that end increased government funding to sponsor research and development efforts of the variety of corporations involved with energy storage technology is advocated. By utilizing government funds to give American companies an edge in this arena, not only can the United States become the world leader in electricity storage solutions, it can export its technology to other nations as well. Not only will the nation lead the way towards a future of zero emissions and sustainability, but it will be opening new, potentially massive markets in which an economy could benefit.
First and foremost, the largest benefits of having an effective energy storage solution is the ability for us, as a society, to push forward and continue our roll-out of renewable, sustainable energy. There are obvious benefits to being able to construct a carbon free power grid, such as its impact on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, however there are additional tangible benefits.
For one, the construction and installation of these energy storage solutions would entail a significant effort. Many jobs could be created in this sector. For instance, individuals who work in the coal industry could be re-trained and given the tools and skills to work in a new industry with a bright future, rather than a stagnant and declining one. Further, retrained coal miners would no longer have to spend their days underground in hazardous conditions, and could work in a much safer environment on the surface. Another benefit would be an increase in energy independence. Unlike other fuel sources (such as oil), wind and solar based renewable energy is inexhaustible and highly abundant just about everywhere.
Additional benefits would stem from further economic growth in the United States. To support this developing industry, large factories, distribution facilities, and offices would need to be constructed. It would create many domestic manufacturing jobs, require many engineers to design and implement the technology, and provide jobs for countless administrative, sales, and other personnel.
A significant amount of work will be required to continue the charge forward on the path of progress. There will no doubt be great costs incurred by the transition to renewable, next-generation energy, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. By funding the development of energy storage solutions, the nation will be able to not only take a step towards securing the environmental future of the planet, but will be able to economically benefit from such efforts as well. By ensuring that the United States leads the world in energy storage technologies, efforts will be made to help save the planet, provide jobs to countless Americans, and even make a profit in the process.
Astbury, Chrissy. “How America’s Solar Energy Policies Should Follow (and Stray) from Germany’s Lead.” Indiana International & Comparative Law Review, vol. 27, no. 2, ser. 2017, 1 July 2017, pp. 211–211. 2017, doi:10.18060/7909.0051.
Lambert, Fred. “Tesla Quietly Brings Online Its Massive – Biggest in the World – 80 MWh Powerpack Station with Southern California Edison.” Electrek, 23 Jan. 2017, electrek.co/2017/01/23/tesla-mira-loma-powerpack-station-southern-california-edison/.
Rehman, Shafiqur, et al. “Pumped Hydro Energy Storage System: A Technological Review.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, vol. 44, Apr. 2015, pp. 586–598., doi:10.1016/j.rser.2014.12.040.