Over at the Energy Desk this week we’ve been thinking about diets.
Energy diets, of course — but first, a metaphor.
Imagine a doctor tells you your cholesterol is dangerously high and you need to change what you eat — more fruits and vegetables, fewer cheeseburgers and French fries, etc. This change would be challenging. You would have to make decisions about which healthy foods to integrate into your diet and which foods even count as healthy. Canned vegetables or fresh? Chicken or fish? And then you’d have to figure out how to leave the old, unhealthy stuff behind.
Scientists, economists, policymakers and others have been urging power utilities to go on a low-carbon diet for years. The directive is simple enough, but then there is the matter of how to integrate low-carbon power into the grid. And what, anyway, counts as low-carbon and how can it be made to work with existing power sources?
This week brought three big stories of policymakers, business and electricity providers grappling with that question.
New York is incorporating nuclear — a source heavily scrutinized by green groups — to help solve this challenge. (This might be thought of as a the McChicken approach — better than a burger, but far from a salad.) Following the state’s recent decision to subsidize three upstate nuclear power plants, Hydro-Quebec and Brookfield Renewable Partners petitioned state regulators last week to include hydropower on the list of low-carbon sources eligible for state subsidies. The payments are aimed at helping New York get half its power from renewable sources by 2030. The firms threatened to send their hydropower elsewhere unless the state complies, though big hydropower, like nuclear, is a contentious technology among many environmentalists.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) offered another perspective. Scientists at NREL contend that wind and solar — the farmer’s market fruits and vegetables of clean energy — can be integrated into a healthy energy diet, displacing some, but not all, fossil fuel power sources. The lab’s latest study said the power grid in the eastern United States — a behemoth that supplies electricity to over 240 million people — can incorporate up to 30 percent renewable energy in the next ten years without any major technological advances. The researchers concluded it’s technically possible for the grid to integrate huge amounts of new wind and solar energy along with more traditional power from the likes of coal and natural gas plants without causing major disruptions to the energy supply. The study is a blow to renewable energy skeptics, who have long argued the country’s aging grid can’t handle power from intermittent sources.
Finally, corporate America is taking an entirely different approach, abandoning the grocery, the farmer’s market and Micky D’s. Major American companies are looking to their backyard gardens, buying up wind and solar energy to service their own operations. Last year companies including Google, Apple, 3M and General Motors bought more new wind power than utilities themselves. The deals are not only helping firms meet internal sustainability goals with cost-competitive power but also providing crucial support for wind project developers at a time of regulatory uncertainty.