Is it possible for utilities to provide 100% renewable energy?
Xcel Energy is an electric utility based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It serves more than 3.3 million electric customers throughout Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. Xcel has a goal of delivering 100% carbon free electricity by the year 2050. As of 2018, their delivery was 38% carbon free, and by 2030, Xcel hopes to deliver 80% carbon free electricity before reaching their ultimate goal of 100% carbon free by 2050.
Unfortunately, the road to 100% carbon free electricity is not 100% smooth. Without abundant storage options, solar and wind electricity generating assets rely on the weather. If the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing, utilities can not deliver 100% clean energy. When the weather does not cooperate, the utility will pull from coal and natural gas plants to meet the demand of its customers.
So how do you reach 100% carbon free electricity? One way is to send clean electricity from places where it is abundant to locations where it is not as bountiful. Los Angeles, California receives an average of 284 days of sunshine, and Phoenix, Arizona receives 299! Burlington, Vermont is all the way down to 157 days of sunshine, and Boston sits at the national average of 205 days of sunshine per year. In order to send solar electricity from the west coast to the east coast, it would require a serious upgrade in our grid technology. “...the nation's grid is fragmented. It would take a system of efficient high-voltage transmission lines for this to work, and that doesn't exist.” (Source)
A revamping of transmission lines like this would also call for major construction. Not only would this construction be very expensive, it would also necessitate cutting down a significant amount of trees and plants, which opens up a whole new can of worms. In situations when developing infrastructure to support renewable energy calls for cutting down trees or disturbing other biological life, conservationists come out in full force against these projects. Read more about these situations here: When Communities Say No To Solar and Wind. So, not only do these projects face cost challenges, they also face community opposition as well.
Although grid revitalization is not yet happening at the national level, it is occurring at a more local level. “In Colorado, Xcel is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to update its grid so it can better manage intermittent power sources, like rooftop solar on homes.” (Source) This grid revamping could also lead to smart appliances that take advantage of time of use rates and save folks money on their electric bills. Google Nest is a smart product that controls thermostats and is already saving folks money by taking advantage of time of use rates. You can set a specific schedule and preferred temperature for your home, and google nest will heat or cool your home when the electricity is the cheapest, while also achieving the temperature you want, at the time of day you want.
With this technology already here, it is very exciting to think about where we will be in 5 to ten five to ten years.