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Changes, challenges for the grid

Some people think scientists have a lot of answers, but when we talk with each other, we mostly have questions.

This is true in my field, which is strategic issues affecting the energy and power industries, because big changes that will affect us all are happening right now. 

For example:

• Wind and solar energy are the nation’s fastest-growing energy sources.

• Millions of smart meters and smart grid components are giving us more choices in how we consume electricity.

• We are saving more gasoline every day by driving more hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

• Natural gas is dramatically more inexpensive and in greater supply than just a few years ago.

These all are positive developments, but they come with big challenges, because the grid has so many moving parts that it is hard to coordinate them efficiently.

We have 18,000 power sources, from small diesel generators to huge nuclear plants, that send electricity over 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to 60,000 substations, which send it again over 3 million miles of distribution lines to millions of homes, offices and industries.

Now throw in this complication: We can’t store electricity on this scale and release it on demand, but production still has to equal demand 24/7. When millions of us turn on our air conditioners, the extra electricity has to be there right now, and when we turn them off, some power plants have to ramp down.

These challenges only will grow as we add more wind and solar energy sources into the mix, because their day-to-day production is variable and as difficult to predict as the weather.

Right now, they contribute only about 3 percent of the nation’s electricity. But their share is expected to grow rapidly and may provide up to 80 percent of our electricity by 2050. 

With this much renewable energy, managing the grid so the lights always will stay on will be a challenge. It will require new technologies and new ways to plan and operate our grid. We also will have to figure out the effect on our other huge investments in the transmission and distribution system and on our nuclear, coal and natural gas plants, and how it will change the way homes, offices and factories interact with it all. 

At Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy support work with many universities, private companies and other national laboratories to understand and manage the national impacts.

In the next 10 to 20 years, our national electricity system will look a lot different than it does today. I wish I could tell you exactly how, but right now, those of us who study it for a living have more questions than answers.

Guenter Conzelmann is director of the Center for Energy, Environmental, and Economic Systems Analysis in the Decision & Information Sciences Division at Argonne National Laboratory.

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