While solar energy is sometimes criticized as not being cost effective or too unreliable, new research from the University of Delaware and Delaware Community College is finding out just the opposite. By 2030, the authors of the study predicted, renewable energy could produce enough energy to power a large electric grid 99.9% of the time at costs comparable to today’s electricity expenses. The scientists found that a combination of solar power, wind power, and storage units (batteries and fuel cells) could nearly always exceed the demand for power while keeping costs low and pollution reduced up to 90%.

Methods: Combining Solar, Wind, and Storage

Having the correct combination of wind to solar to storage is the key component of the study. Exhaustive calculations and research were spent determining the optimal proportions. The authors made a computer model that ultimately tested 28 billion combinations of renewable energy generators and storage units using four years of hourly weather records and energy demand data. The energy data was derived from a large regional grid that includes 13 states (from New Jersey to Illinois) and represents one-fifth of the total electric grid in the US.

Conclusion: Findings for Renewable Energy

Storage units are costly, and the study found that it would actually be more economical to generate more energy in times of average energy use so that demand during peak-hour periods can be met. In the study, researchers would achieve their result of powering the grid almost solely through renewable energy by devoting more area to renewable electrical generation, using a diverse set of generation sources, employing storage systems, and reserving burning fossil fuels as a backup. When demand exceeded production, energy was drawn from storage, then fossil fuels. When a surplus was generated, first the batteries were replenished, then renewable energy was spent replacing natural gas for heating homes, and finally any remaining excess energy was let go to waste.

For calculating costs, projections of costs in 2030 were used. The cost of using fossil fuels included the cost of health effects caused by air pollution. By 2030, the capital costs for wind and solar energy are expected to be half what they are today, although maintenance costs will likely be about the same. Finally, the authors note, “Aiming for 90 percent or more renewable energy in 2030, in order to achieve climate change targets of 80 to 90 percent reduction of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the power sector, leads to economic savings.”

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