American Supergrid – How Texas can unlock clean energy with small connections


I have set out to write a very different book from the one that was published last week. It would have been called “Climate of Opportunity” and would have featured innovators who have found opportunities to profit while tackling climate change.

With classes over for the summer of 2017, I headed to downtown Houston to conduct my first interview.

“Well, who the hell is making money from this?” Michael Skelly replied upon hearing my premise. The tall, bespectacled entrepreneur had offered me and a former student-turned-employee sandwiches in the conference room of Clean Line Energy, the company he founded in 2009.

Clean Line aimed to build power lines stretching hundreds of miles from the windswept terrain of the central United States to cities such as Memphis, Chicago and Los Angeles. Each planned line had a clever name befitting the grand plan: Rock Island, Grainbelt Express, Western Spirit, Centennial West and Plains & Eastern. But by the time of our lunch, not a single line had been built. It remained that way until 2019, when Clean Line firm this office. Opposition landowners, utility executives and politicians blocked his every move.

Maybe creative entrepreneurs aren’t enough, I reasoned. So I abandoned my first book proposal. Then another. Eventually, I settled on an idea that convinced me and an editor: Much more than business plans will be needed on the path to clean energy. Politics, technology and diplomacy all have to play a role.

A hundred interviews later, “Confronting Climate Gridlock” is the book that has emerged. By the end of the process, including Hurricane Harvey and a massive grid outage in Texas, I was back to the issue of power lines and the idea of ​​a supergrid. But I was convinced that a different approach than what Clean Line had pursued – one that emphasized smaller connections between existing networks and avoided unnecessary turf battles – was key. And it was clear that no matter how better connected our grids are, it’s also essential that we find ways to power them with cleaner energy in the future.

Power lines spanning multiple states have their merits. With wind energy costs free fall by 72% and solar by 90% since 2009, wind and solar farms can now produce electricity more cheaply than anything else. But they won’t be built without a way to bring their power to market.

Our country’s largest power lines were built primarily to connect the largest power plants of the last century – towering hydroelectric dams, nuclear reactors, and coal and gas burning facilities – to the cities and factories that need power the most. electricity. Too few lines serve regions where land is cheap and where the winds and sunshine are strongest. And the power lines are confined within the borders of the three main grids – one stretching from California to Montana and western Canada; another stretching from Florida to the Dakotas and eastern Canada; and a self-contained network in Texas that functions as an island unto itself. The western and eastern networks are balkanized into areas managed by different operators, with too few lines and coordination between them.

Our antiquated grids need updating, but as Skelly and Clean Line have learned the hard way, thousand-mile lines aren’t the shortest way to do it. The longer the line, the more the owners, neighbors and politicians could object.

Learn from Uri

Instead, what we need most are shorter lines stitching the seams of our existing grids, creating what some have called a “supergrid.” This would mean that our three main grids, currently isolated from each other, could start sharing electricity with each other. This, in turn, would provide power at all times from where there is the most wind and sun.

That seam wouldn’t have prevented the massive power outage that left millions of Texans shivering in the dark during last February’s freeze. But since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report on the noted storm, connections to other grids could have helped end these outages sooner by bringing power from neighboring states once they recovered from their own initial struggles. The report rightly calls for studies on adding interconnections.

Of course, freezers are rare here. That’s what pulled me south after four winters in New England. When the weather is milder, Texas could export wind and solar power to the rest of the country. There is no reason for what is made in Texas to stay in Texas, as we have learned with all other forms of energy. And we could produce a lot more wind and solar power if there were more power lines in Texas and beyond.

More than 130 gigawatts of wind and solar projects — enough to nearly quadruple ERCOT’s renewable energy capacity — are now in the grid operator’s queue. But most of them will not be built until the transmission bottlenecks are eliminated. Search by my group showed that a mere fraction of these projects would be enough to replace all coal-fired power plants in Texas, halting their deadly effects on our health and climate. It’s not always sunny and windy, but most of the time it’s sunny or windy somewhere in Texas. And when it’s not, our existing nuclear power plants and new options like batteries, geothermal and connections to other grids can cleanly fill in the gaps to allow us to stop coal and reduce our dependence on natural gas.

With the new seam connecting major U.S. grids to a supergrid, complementary generation from solar and wind power could provide well over half of the country’s energy needs, thereby reducing costs and emissions. But even with easy transmission of energy from one part to another, solar and wind power will probably not be enough to provide all the energy needed. In northern areas, sunshine can be low and winds stagnant for long periods of winter when heating demand is high. The Germans call it “dunkelflaute», or the dark doldrums. Even in mild weather, the winds are sometimes slow at night.

Currently, these gaps are being filled by coal, which is rapidly being phased out due to cost and environmental concerns, and natural gas, which is cleaner but still produces greenhouse gases.

For many decades, hydro and nuclear have been our main sources of fossil-free electricity, and sustaining their production will indeed be crucial. But we are not building new big dams. Two nuclear reactors under construction in Georgia are believed to be the country’s first since the 1970s. They run for six years late and more than twice the budget. Caroline from the south canceled plans for two reactors after wasting $9 billion. Although Bill Gates and others have plans to small modular reactorsthey are unlikely to build much more than pilot projects for at least another decade. And the world still lacks long-term repositories for nuclear waste, or a way to fully protect power plants from tsunamis or military attacks.

Therefore, new construction of dams and nuclear power plants is unlikely to do much to achieve President Biden’s goal. goal 100% clean electricity by 2035. Yet clean electricity is essential to the global decarbonization of energy. Without it, there is little reason to electrify cars, heating and industries. Clean, cheap electricity is also crucial for making hydrogen and eventually capturing carbon from the air.

Promising alternatives

While clouding my view of nuclear power, the research for my book gave me hope that geothermal might be on the verge of a breakthrough. It is easy to overlook geothermal energy, since it provides less than half a percent of the country’s electricity today. Most geothermal power plants were built decades ago on rare sites where the heat is so low that you can see steam rising from the ground.

Drilling technologies pioneered by the oil and gas industry can be repurposed to access hot fluid reservoirs deep below the surface, opening up vast swaths of the western United States and even eastern Texas to geothermal exploration. That’s why entrepreneurs like Tim Latimer choose Texas to launch their geothermal ventures, leveraging the expertise of local industries. During my research, I’ve seen Latimer go from participating in a cleantech incubator program in California to eight-figure deals with Bill Gates and google here in Texas.

Companies such as Google are increasingly committing to buying clean 24/7 electricity that cannot be met by wind and solar. This creates a market niche for geothermal energy, even though it is still around twice as expensive as wind and solar. Early adopters can reduce costs through “learning by doing” as technologies evolve.

This progress in finding new ways to power our network should give cause for optimism. However, cost and time are essential. If we can’t make clean energy cheap and reliable here soon, it won’t be attractive in less wealthy countries. Given that US emissions have fallen to just one-seventh of the global total, we won’t be able to slow global warming unless other countries clean up as well.

My book covers many dimensions of the fight against climate change on a global scale – the diplomacy behind the Paris Agreement; the technologies needed to power cleaner cars and industries; the stalled policy of climate legislation.

Although I try to focus on the solutions, I recognize that they will be difficult to implement.

The opportunities represented by a clean supergrid — with Texas often serving as a powerhouse — can help us find a way out of the climate impasse. The supergrid is a big idea, but getting there could involve a series of smaller steps that bring together new technologies and clever ways to navigate bureaucracy. Skelly, it turns out, didn’t give up. He thinks it was too early with Clean Line and recently started a new company with a similar mission called Grid United.

Ultimately, I didn’t write the set of wellness profiles I envisioned back in 2017. But I have a new kind of hope that the United States can lead the way to an energy cleaner and help control emissions that are warming the climate.

Cohan is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. His book “Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future” was published by Yale University Press. He will speak with Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson at a public event April 5.


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