A study led by Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson has demonstrated that the US energy system running on wind, water and solar, coupled with storage, not only avoids blackouts but lowers energy requirements and consumer costs while creating millions of jobs, improving health, and freeing up land.
The Jacobson-led study conducted with colleagues from Stanford University analysed grid stability under multiple scenarios in which wind, water, and solar energy resources powered 100% of all energy needs in the United States.
The study, published in the journal Renewable Energy, demonstrates a blackout-free energy system under ideal circumstances, and a much reduced risk of blackouts in extreme weather events compared to the current fossil fuel-led energy systems.
The Stanford researchers analysed how to meet continuous energy demand every 30 seconds for two years, running simulations for six individual states: Alaska and Hawaii, both of which are geographically isolated, along with California, Texas, New York, and Florida.
The researchers also analysed the interconnected electricity grid regions in the United States, and the contiguous United States as a whole.
“This study is the first to examine grid stability in all US grid regions and many individual states after electrifying all energy and providing the electricity with only energy that is both clean and renewable,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and study lead author.
“This means no fossil fuels, carbon capture, direct air capture, bioenergy, blue hydrogen or nuclear power”
Analysing grid stability across all 50 US states and districts for 2050-51 following a sector-wide transition to 100% renewable electricity and heat – including the electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry sectors – and the deployment of battery storage and demand response, the study finds no blackouts occur, including during summer in California or winter in Texas, and no batteries with more than four hours of storage are needed.
The report specifically demonstrates “concatenating” 4-hour batteries to provide long-duration storage – basically connecting 4-hour batteries end-to-end to provide storage duration longer than their isolated individual limits.
In reality, the study found that long-duration batteries were neither needed nor even helpful for keeping the grid stable. What was more beneficial, however, was linking together short-duration batteries so they could provide long-term storage when used in succession.
Such a battery setup can also be discharged simultaneously to meet heavy peaks in demand for short periods. In other words, concatenating short-duration storage is best suited to be used for both big peaks in demand and for short periods and lower peaks for a long period, or any variety in between.
The scenarios analysed a massive scale-up of offshore wind turbines and rooftop solar panels – none of which take up new land – as well as onshore wind turbines, utility-scale solar farms, and concentrated solar power plants. The scenarios also included some new geothermal but no new hydroelectric infrastructure.
And while decarbonising transport and industry will more than double electricity usage, the shift to renewables nevertheless reduces total end-use energy demand by around 57% as against business-as-usual.
This, in turn, results in average per capita household annual energy costs nearly 63% lower than in a business-as-usual scenario. In some US states, costs dropped by as much as 79%, or as little 43% – worth noting, though, 43% is still a significant cost reduction for any household.
Costs per unit of energy in California, New York, and Texas fall by 11%, 21%, and 27%, respectively, though in Florida it rises by 1.5%, when these states are interconnected regionally rather than islanded as they are today.
In fact, interconnecting larger and larger geographic regions actually made power supply smoother and costs lower, increasing as it would the availability of perfect conditions for wind, solar, and hydro generation, while reducing the need for extra wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries.
Stabilising the grid in states like California and Texas with renewable energy and storage actively prevents blackouts, partly due to the fact that energy requirements are reduced by 60% in California and 57% in Texas by electrifying all energy sectors with renewable sources.
Stability also comes from the fact that, when the wind is not blowing the sun is often shining during the day, and vice versa, meaning that both can help to meet demand with supply.
Practical reasons also appear. For example, during cold spells such as the one which led to the Texas power crisis earlier this year, the wind is generally stronger and therefore helps to meet winter peaks in building heat demand.
Finally, the transition to such a 100% renewable and storage grid creates approximately 4.7 million more permanent jobs than are lost and requires somewhere between .29% and .55% of new US land for footprint and spacing, respectively, less than the 1.3% occupied by the fossil fuel industry today.
Cleaner air resulting from a complete renewable transition would also spare approximately 53,200 people per year from pollution-related deaths and millions more from pollution-related illnesses in 2050, saving around $US700 billion per year in health costs.
The findings of the study stand in stark contrast to the fear and propaganda repeatedly regurgitated by opponents of the renewable energy industry, who have repeatedly pointed to grid blackouts amid extreme weather events in California during August 2020, or Texas during 2021, as evidence that renewables can’t be trusted for consistent power.
However, in both of those high profile instances, renewable energy was found not to be any more vulnerable than other generation sources.
“There is so much to be gained if we can gather the willpower to undertake the transition at a pace fitting the urgency of reaching a zero-carbon system,” said study co-author Anna-Katharina von Krauland, a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.
“I suspect that these ideas, which might sound radical now, will soon become obvious in hindsight.”