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Meeting the Challenge of 35% Wind and Solar Energy in the West

Samir Succar

Posted May 20, 2010

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A new report shows that the West can get at least 35 percent of its electricity from wind and solar resources by 2017 resulting in reductions in global warming pollution of 25-45 percent. The Western Wind and Solar Integration Report released today by the National Renewable Energy Lab finds that supplying this large fraction of electricity from renewables is “operationally feasible” despite the challenges associated with the variability and uncertainty that wind and solar introduce. This level of renewables deployment also reduces other harmful pollutants (see figure below) and reduces what the West spends on coal and natural gas. The study shows that these reduced fuel and emissions costs result in annual operational savings of up to $20 billion per year.

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Emissions impacts of 30% Wind Scenarios vs No Wind Scenarios. "G3.5" scenarios are low natural gas price sensitivity runs.


Increasing the share of non-hydro renewables by a factor of ten will not be easy. The report shows that there are operational challenges to this level of deployment, but it also makes clear that we have the tools we need to integrate renewables at high levels. What is missing is for congress to act quickly on comprehensive climate legislation, a strong renewable energy standard and much needed transmission provisions to provide the long-term certainty needed to drive this level of investment.

What is new here?

WWSIS differentiates itself from prior studies by including solar resources (most large-scale integration studies are limited to wind) and by modeling a relatively high renewables fraction in the generation mix over a short time. This study is a sister study to the EWITS study that I discussed in an earlier post, and like its eastern counterpart this study marks a new geographic scale for this type of analysis, encompassing five major states: NV, AZ, NM, CO and WY.

Screen shot 2010-05-20 at 11.53.56 AM.png

The footprint of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study shown in dark blue "WestConnect"

 How do we get there?

The critical elements needed to accomplishing this vision are a strong grid and a high degree of operational flexibility. I have mentioned in a prior post how the Danish system relies on a strong transmission network and large-area balancing with its neighbors to get to 20 percent wind and what WWSIS shows is that the same rules apply here in the US.

Getting to 35 percent wind and solar electricity in the West means balancing supply and demand over large areas on the grid so that the system can take advantage of geographic diversity of renewable energy supply (i.e. “the wind is always blowing somewhere”).  This requires better coordination on the system and consolidating balancing into fewer, larger areas (WWSIS consolidates 37 existing balancing areas into 5 larger, regional areas).

While the WWSIS is not a detailed transmission planning study, it does show the large amount of power transfer needed to accomplish this level of renewables deployment. This means a significant increase in transmission line development to deliver renewable power to demand centers and to facilitate a large degree of coordinated regional balancing. However, this transmission expansion must be carried out in a way that strikes the appropriate balance between accessing high quality renewable resources and protecting sensitive lands. This also means increasing the utilization of existing transmission lines, maximizing energy efficiency and encouraging the deployment of clean distributed generation.

Successfully implementing a high-renewables scenario like this also means maximizing operation flexibility by scheduling power plants in smaller time increments, using state of the art wind and solar forecasting tools and making the best use of flexible power plants that can change their output quickly to balance the fluctuations from the wind and the sun.

The Time To Act Is Now

WWSIS is an important step forward in our understanding of how we can transform our energy systems to accommodate large quantities of clean, renewable energy. It underscores the point that we have the tools we need on the grid to achieve these ambitious goals. If congress moves quickly to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill with a strong renewable energy standard and the necessary transmission provisions, we can achieve these goals in a relatively short amount of time. There will be challenges along the way, but the benefits to the environment, our health and our economy demand that we get started now.


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MonicaMay 21 2010 08:09 PM

Excellent! Thank you for sharing this! We need all the concrete data and viable information we can get, towards practical and swift implementation of clean, non-hazardous energy sources as quickly as possible, once and for all. We are over half a century overdue.

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