How to incorporate solar and wind while keeping the electricity grid stable is a key question
When it comes to generating renewable electricity, Hawaii is leading other states in almost every category.
It gets 33 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar and has 60 utility-scale renewable energy projects feeding power into its grids. The state Legislature wants to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
Just how it does that, while preventing overloads and brownouts, is being closely watched by other states. Hawaii provides a “preview” of what states might do as the United States moves faster toward renewable energy than many experts anticipated, according to a study released this week by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“If this can be done in Hawaii, it can be replicated anywhere else,” said Martha Symko-Davies, program manager for NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility. The report pointed to solutions for feeding large amounts of fluctuating renewable energy into the six power grids that distribute the Hawaiian Islands’ electricity.
The study shows that the use of “smart inverters,” switches that can automatically respond to potential overloads, help the grids handle the ups and downs of solar power. The growth of rooftop solar, long thought to be the wild card in controlling grids, “could actually be an asset for grid stability,” the study says.
There are days now when Hawaii approaches having 60 percent of its power come from renewable energy. It’s popular in part because Hawaii has traditionally generated most of its electricity from high-priced imported oil.
But other states are finding their own reasons to hasten the pace toward renewable energy. The record-breaking enthusiasm for more solar and wind power among utilities and consumers is pushing the management of the nation’s electric power grids into uncharted waters.
In January, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced that almost half of the utility-scale power generation capacity installed in the United States last year involved renewable energy. It predicted that wind power will surpass hydroelectric power this year as the nation’s largest source of renewable energy. It would be the first time in history.
The nation’s combined wind and solar power set another record, producing over 10 percent of U.S. electricity. It marked the first time since 1984 that renewable sources eclipsed the amount of power produced by the country’s nuclear power plants. And during some days last spring, California’s rapidly growing solar generation produced more than 50 percent of the state’s entire electric power demands, according to the EIA.
The bad news is that the galloping growth of solar and wind power presents a lot of unknowns. Computer modelers see a challenge in keeping the grids delivering reliable power during peak demand periods if renewable growth accelerates.
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