Sunday, September 11, 2016

Can the U.S. Develop a Supergrid Before China?

Psychedelic nation? One of the inputs for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration computer model displays current wind speed information and related energy prices in different colors to help select the cheapest available source of energy. (Map Credit: NOAA) Click to Enlarge.
Meteorologists and other scientists were voicing [a]... sense of despair.  They said now global warming seemed almost unstoppable.  Greenhouse gases would double by the 2050s.  Large amounts of ice would melt in Antarctica and Greenland.  Sea levels would rise by multiple feet.  Parts of the planet could become uninhabitable.

That was the point when Alexander MacDonald, one of the world's top weather scientists, became determined to prove them all wrong with a radical idea he had quietly been nurturing.

It was that a "supergrid," a national network of 30,000 miles of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) electricity lines, might cut electricity generating emissions by as much as 80 percent by rapidly moving surplus power generated by wind, solar, hydroelectric and natural gas around the nation.  The system, he thinks, could be built in 15 years.  The resulting power, most of it coming from the weather, he asserts, would not lift energy bills much above traditional levels.
Hopes for a bipartisan embrace
MacDonald hired Christopher Clack, a mathematician, to develop a computer model that uses current energy prices to select the cheapest available energy at any given time.  The model, which takes four hours to run on a supercomputer, shows solar power reinforced by natural gas spreading westward as the sun rises over the East Coast.  During midday a "crescent" of photovoltaic solar arrays pump electricity northward from the South and later from the deserts of the Southwest.  At night, wind from the Great Plains is dispatched to both coasts.

Clack and MacDonald say no energy breakthroughs and no large renewable storage batteries are needed to fill their National Electricity with Weather System (NEWS) with cheap, variable, and 80 percent clean electricity.

The speed and efficiency of the HVDC power lines would also allow new nuclear power plants to be built in low population areas rather than near cities to provide additional safety measures if more clean power was needed, they note.  Their NEWS model had some surprises, showing that the lines could deliver cheaper wind power from North Dakota to New York City than wind from offshore wind turbines contemplated off the East Coast.

What would all this cost U.S. consumers?  Clack estimates the bill will be $17 billion a year for 30 years.  "But we spend $400 billion a year on electricity, so it becomes a small share of the average electric bill," he said.  "You pay that, but you end up reducing electricity costs over time."

His calculation shows that each state will eventually reduce their electricity costs as the investments are paid off.  Meanwhile, greenhouse gases will be sharply reduced and so will water use because older fossil fuel plants that use cooling water will be shut down.

MacDonald, Clack and four other NOAA and University of Colorado authors explained the supergrid in a scholarly paper in January, and MacDonald shed further light on how the idea might win political support in an op-ed he wrote in June for The Washington Post.

Read more at Can the U.S. Develop a Supergrid Before China?

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