Wind and Solar Power Could Meet Four-Fifths of U.S. Electricity Demand, Study Finds

Solar panels cover the roof of UCI’s Student Center Parking Structure. A new study co-authored by Steven Davis, associate professor of Earth system science, shows that the U.S. can meet 80 percent of its electricity demand with renewable solar and wind resources. Steve Zylius / UCI

Irvine, Calif., Feb. 27, 2018 – The United States could reliably meet about 80 percent of its electricity demand with solar and wind power generation, according to scientists at the University of California, Irvine; the California Institute of Technology; and the Carnegie Institution for Science.

However, meeting 100 percent of electricity demand with only solar and wind energy would require storing several weeks’ worth of electricity to compensate for the natural variability of these two resources, the researchers said.

“The sun sets, and the wind doesn’t always blow,” noted Steven Davis, UCI associate professor of Earth system science and co-author of a renewable energy study published today in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. “If we want a reliable power system based on these resources, how do we deal with their daily and seasonal changes?” 

The team analyzed 36 years of hourly U.S. weather data (1980 to 2015) to understand the fundamental geophysical barriers to supplying electricity with only solar and wind energy. 

“We looked at the variability of solar and wind energy over both time and space and compared that to U.S. electricity demand,” Davis said. “What we found is that we could reliably get around 80 percent of our electricity from these sources by building either a continental-scale transmission network or facilities that could store 12 hours’ worth of the nation’s electricity demand.”

The researchers said that such expansion of transmission or storage capabilities would mean very substantial – but not inconceivable – investments. They estimated that the cost of the new transmission lines required, for example, could be hundreds of billions of dollars. In comparison, storing that much electricity with today’s cheapest batteries would likely cost more than a trillion dollars, although prices are falling.

Other forms of energy stockpiling, such as pumping water uphill to later flow back down through hydropower generators, are attractive but limited in scope. The U.S. has a lot of water in the East but not much elevation, with the opposite arrangement in the West.

Fossil fuel-based electricity production is responsible for about 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions – CO2 pollution being the major cause of global climate change. Davis said he is heartened by the progress that has been made and the prospects for the future.

“The fact that we could get 80 percent of our power from wind and solar alone is really encouraging,” he said. “Five years ago, many people doubted that these resources could account for more than 20 or 30 percent.”

But beyond the 80 percent mark, the amount of energy storage required to overcome seasonal and weather variabilities increases rapidly. “Our work indicates that low-carbon-emission power sources will be needed to complement what we can harvest from the wind and sun until storage and transmission capabilities are up to the job,” said co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “Options could include nuclear and hydroelectric power generation, as well as managing demand.”

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Lloyd's Dumb Outdoor Adventure #46

Sometimes I feel as if I have some psychic forces protecting me, kind of like — to use a phrase bandied about in the ’60s — the Lords of Karma. I think of them as aunts and uncles watching over my shoulder and saying, the dumb shit is in trouble again, let’s help him out.
It happened once again yesterday.
I took my 12′ Klamath aluminum boat w/15 HP Evinrude to a nearby bay (I’m not being specific about locale these days, due to the internet).
I went across the bay, landed, and gathered mussels and half a dozen rock oysters. pulled out and went to another beach, landed, and started digging littleneck clams (cockles). I dug for maybe 15 minutes, turned around, and shit! the outgoing tide had picked up my boat and it was 75 yards off shore, heading at a pretty good clip across the bay. What to do?

I stripped down, just leaving on my wool socks (for walking on rocks) and started swimming to the boat. The water was maybe 56 degrees. Funny thing, I was so immersed with the problem, I didn’t feel all that cold. I reached the boat in maybe 5 minutes and realized that if I couldn’t climb aboard, I couldn’t get it back to land. Problem is, my upper body strength is about a third of what it was in my younger years.
I got to the stern and hauled myself half out of the water, paused, told myself you’ve got to do this, and managed to pull myself into the boat, started it up, got back to the beach, got clothes on, teeth chattering, motored back across, got boat back on trailer, and thanked the Lords of Karma for once again saving me from a dumb move.
A guy was watching intently from the shore, and I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but a helicopter swooped down after I’d got back to the beach. Guess they had a look and concluded I was OK.
Back home, I had a shot of Laphroaig, took a hot bath, had dinner, and slept for 12 hours.
And yes, from now on, I’m throwing an anchor with rope to the beach when I land.

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Great Day in Santa Rosa!

At the Rebuild Green Expo

This has been an extraordinary day. By now, I’d say 20 people have come up to our booth about the influence of our books on their lives. It’s not us, really, it’s the people we show in our books. Readers are relating to these people and their lives, and it resonates with them. For example, this guy hauled out an old copy of Domebook 2, and this tattered copy of the original printing of Shelter and told us how important it was to him. A couple of guys told me they’d come across Shelter in their teen years; they were now in their 60s. Wow!

I’ve had meaningful discussions with landowners about septic systems, building codes, construction methods, building materials. It’s great to talk to people about real things.

I think this is a real story here. 8,000 homes destroyed, the clean-up, and in the future, rebuilding. People here are motivated to do things better. Sun-heated water and sun-powered electricity. Building materials that cost the planet the least in pollution from their manufacture. Structural systems that are efficient and economical. Somebody could do a video of the rebuilding as it unfolds in coming months in Santa Rosa.

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The Rebuild Green Expo in Santa Rosa

We set up a table with my open letter to homeowners rebuilding after the fires, as well as our books. The event started slow, but by 1PM, the place got (and still is) jammed. Here’s an overall view, and Evan and Em-J at our table.

It’s just unbelievable how many people have come up to us today and told us how the book Shelter influenced their lives. I’ve talked to 10-12 people who were inspired by this book. Another guy came by, a timber framer, and said that he’s using our book Small Homes for building ideas.

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