Could wind, solar slash carbon emissions affordably?

Scientists thought solar and wind power were prohibitively expensive options to cut carbon emissions. But new research suggests these green technologies might be an affordable solution if employed on a national scale in a 'superhighway of electrons'.

Matt Young/AP/File
A wind turbine farm owned by PacifiCorp stands near Glenrock, Wyo., Monday, May 6, 2013.

Green technology is often thought of as prohibitively expensive. Solar and wind power, for example, were once estimated to double or triple electricity costs. 

But that might not be the case anymore. New research suggests it might actually be feasible to use solar and wind power across the United States. In fact, researchers propose a new model that could cut emissions by up to 80 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels, without developing new technologies or raising prices.

How would it work? Power from solar, wind, and other existing technologies would all contribute to a grid across the continental United States to share the burden of power production. That combination would make it economically feasible to cut carbon emissions significantly in the electricity sector, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature

"The model results show us that there is a possible way to do it without destroying any economies if we just think about the problem slightly differently," study co-lead author Christopher Clack tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.

Policymakers have long viewed wind and solar power as being costly, niche technologies. Furthermore, the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine, so even if the technologies were affordable, how could the entire country rely on these renewable energy sources? 

The trick, according to this model, is to use multiple power sources together on the national scale. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, scientists built this model based on the weather system. Some regions, like the southwest, might be particularly sunny. Others, like the Dakotas, might have just the right wind conditions. 

"If you can trade power over the whole US at the same time, then there'll always be someplace that's generating power like crazy," study co-lead author Alexander MacDonald tells the Monitor. 

In this scenario, electricity would be generated mostly from sunlight and wind, with fossil fuels filling in the gaps.

One factor driving up the costs of solar and wind power has been the need to store the electricity somewhere for a rainy or calm day. Such batteries are expensive. A national network would spread out excess power in real time and help smooth over weak times.

If employed, the new electricity system would be "a sort of superhighway for electrons," explains Dr. MacDonald. The current grid wouldn't be able to accommodate such rapid, large-scale transmission. So, like the Eisenhower interstate highway system, he says, high voltage direct current lines would have to be constructed, crisscrossing the country. These lines would "move the energy around where you need it, when you need it," he says.

The year 2030 is fast approaching, so will this actually happen?

"I'm just a lowly scientist," Dr. Clack says. "I only know what the science says."

MacDonald adds that it will be up to policymakers and the people. "Our job is to show that there is a system that is possible with existing technology, technology available right now."

It could all hinge on that political will, Jeff Deyette, assistant director of energy research at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was not involved in the study, tells the Monitor. He explains that creating a national scale power system would "require a major shift in how we transmit and distribute power across the country." Currently, the electricity sector is largely controlled by regional transmission organizations. To employ the system proposed by the NOAA researchers, discussion would have to happen on the federal level too. "I think it comes down to the political will to make it happen," Mr. Deyette says.

The electricity sector contributes about 40 percent of US carbon emissions, James Mandel, a principal at Rocky Mountain Institute who was not involved in the study, tells the Monitor. So power is a good place to to work for a "win" against climate change, he says. 

So could reworking the electric grid save us from climate change? 

Although power production emissions would be slashed dramatically in this new model, it is just the electric sector, Mandel points out. Transportation, heating and industrial endeavors, among others, are still feeding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Mandel adds that this model also only focuses on the US, when climate change is a global issue. 

But "weather is big worldwide," MacDonald says. A similar power network could be set up elsewhere across the globe.

Still, it's going to be an uphill battle. "We already have a certain amount of climate change, global warming baked into the atmosphere from the emissions we've already put up there," Deyette says. And those emissions are going to be up there for a while.

With new systems like these, all hope is not lost. "Technological advances can take us a long way toward solving the climate crisis," Deyette says. This new model "is certainly a very strong positive step in the right direction."

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