Replacing conventional power with renewables

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Could solar and wind energy be enough?

Replacing conventional power with renewables may happen over time; over a long time. Most arguments favour replacing old thermal coal power plants and ageing nuclear electrical generation. The conventional wisdom proposes options that will provide steady baseload power. Baseload power implies electricity that will be available 24 hours per day 365 days per year. The arguments for renewables including hydro, wind and solar power will be about their credentials in the environmental space. Arguments against coal are about the CO2 emissions and Nuclear will be about their waste issues. There may be some concerns about using nuclear technology and fuel for weapons but there are international safeguards for that. The argument against renewables is about their intermittency of supply.

IRENA is an information source for the costs of generating electricity. They show electricity generated from solar and wind are now lower cost than conventional coal and nuclear power. However, the argument from proponents of conventional power is that the fuel being used is thermally dense. They argue the ground space used by a ‘conventional’ power station (using coal or nuclear fuel) can therefore be smaller. The space used for the plant producing base-load electricity is more compact than the other generators using renewable sources.

Solar and wind farms do use a lot of ground space. There is an argument for having a catalogue of supplies rather than just renewables like wind and solar. Renewables do make excellent secondary passive power systems. Intermittent energy sources in combination with advanced storage systems beyond lithium batteries and efficient energy-smart switching devices make it possible.

Having baseload power

Currently, hydropower can provide scalable base-load power. Replacing conventional power with renewables could mean less stable power networks. The intermittent supplies from wind or solar setups can provide base-load power only if supported with enough storage. While the costs of storage have dropped, the required amount of storage to cover the daily demand is significant. Storage batteries hold surplus generation above the daily output needed to keep the distribution network operating. To keep enough batteries charged at the scale to satisfy the grid is a huge task. Even when they are less expensive, battery storage is an added cost for reliability.

Proponents of the conventional power stations point to the costs of upgrading the distribution grid infrastructure for less reliable renewables. Software, switching yards and interconnects will accompany any new generation facility to put electricity where required. Whenever a new generation capacity is added the distribution network will need upgrading. That will be an obvious requirement in an area where no previous power generation existed. The argument for conventional power stations is basically one of maintaining a centralised electricity generation setup.

Solar and wind energy options

Solar generation works when there is the sun shining on the panels. Wind generation works when there is wind to spin the turbine blades. Hydropower works 24/7 unless there is a drought. Nuclear plants and thermal coal power plants work well where permitted and fuel is secure.

Renewables like solar and wind will advance when energy storage can be assured. If batteries are capable to store enough energy to guarantee operation for several days, the power utility’s concerns would diminish. Consumers use the electricity being generated and there must be enough additional generating capacity to keep batteries charged.

We tend to think of a centralised utility energy storage facility. There is a possibility for the battery storage to be distributed across the consumer base. Consumers of electricity buy batteries for storing cheap renewable solar electricity at daytime rates. They would store that power for future use during the night. In that scenario, the residential battery storage will be a household commodity to access slightly cheaper electricity. In many low-density residential places space for battery storage is not a concern.

Building energy options

Solar panels placed on the land to generate electric power need to take into consideration the value of the land. Land is not a renewable resource. The rental cost of land needs to be factored into the value of the energy source placed on it. Solar technology either needs to use low-value land or be positioned in locations where the panels contribute. Governments regulate the minimum energy efficiency rating of structures and buildings. They could take into consideration the contribution from supporting electricity generation of wind or solar panels in those ratings.

Industrial and commercial buildings often consume huge amounts of power on a day-to-day basis. Most warehouses have large roof spaces that absorb heat and light. Solar panels would assist as an electricity generation source for cooling, light and power. The generating panels would reduce the total amount of power needed in the location of the building. Put solar on top of residential, industrial, public and commercial buildings. Use that output to offset the electricity used at that building.

Solar panels on the car parking structures could charge EVs, and charge batteries for security lighting. The shade of solar panels over parking areas would reduce the sun damage to the vehicles. The solar power generated could provide a carbon-neutral energy source to recharge cars of patrons using those buildings. Over time more places will be incorporating a mix of renewables into their networks. With peer-to-peer sales being an option, some generators could sell the excess electricity to their neighbours at competitive rates. Neighbours with batteries could buy power generated during the day for future use.

Replacing conventional power with renewable energy options

Replacing conventional power with renewables has its supporters. In places where a significant proportion of the electricity generation comes from renewables, there will be baseload support. That support may be hydropower, geothermal, conventional power from coal or nuclear. The present-day costs of electricity whether from renewables or conventional powerplants are relatively high. Utilities will provide a large part of the electricity network’s generation mix, particularly during low renewable generation periods.

Strategies to stabilise supply such as developing a distributed battery network could help. As more solar and wind generation comes onto the grid there will be demand to address grid stability problems. Most concerns will come from utilities supporting the use of conventional power sources. There will be lobbying for a commitment to a conventional baseload power supply. Conventional power usually comes from fossil fuel, nuclear fuel, or renewable baseload like hydropower. Some utility networks will choose to supply for baseload from nuclear power rather than thermal coal technology. In time older nuclear power stations may go. It is likely utilities will simultaneously build new nuclear power stations and increase their take up of renewables.

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