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Trees Are America's Renewable Resource

National Museum of American History

I AM A RENEWABLE RESOURSE

National Museum of American History

Interactive: Mapping Renewable Energy Around the World

Smithsonian Magazine

The above map tracks a form of human activity that didn't exist when Gerardus Mercator first illustrated his style of world projection in 1569: industrial energy production. Click around the map to see the change of global trends in energy over the last 30 years. For each country, data is available for consumption of electricity and the amount of power generated from renewable sources.

Many developed nations have held high, stable rates of energy consumption since 1980, while emerging nations' rates are relatively low. China, on the other hand, is quickly speeding up its electricity use. While countries' usages of different types of renewable energy vary, rates are generally rising: Many of them, when possible, are increasingly embracing wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Demand for Renewable Energy Is Real

Smithsonian Magazine

For the first time since 2006, solar panels are hard to find, Bloomberg reports. Solar panels and their components had been plentiful for the last few years, but it seems that demand has finally caught up with supply.

That’s good news for renewable energy advocates, because it means that the solar energy industry has been expanding quickly. And, in some places, it's not just solar that's been growing. In the first half of 2014, Germany generated 31 percent of itss power from renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydroelectric and biomass sources. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that this renewable surge is driven by passion for the environment but has political motivations as well: Germany would prefer to wean itself off of Russia's supply of oil and gas. 

There are still a few hitches that the renewable energy industry does need to work on, though. Co.Design reports that a solar plant in the Mojave desert is actually burning birds to death as they fly overhead: 

According to a CBS report, as unsuspecting birds fly over this five mile stretch of mirrors, each the size of a garage door, they get scorched, often to death. The trails of smoke left in the sky by their burning feathers have led workers in the area to dub them “streamers.” Federal wildlife investigators reported an average of one streamer every two minutes. BrightSource claims there are 1,000 bird deaths annually, but the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group puts its estimate as high as 28,000.

The owners of the plant are researching solutions to the problem. 

The Countries Poised To Become "Renewable Superpowers"

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

(The Conversation)

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The U.S. and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the U.S. onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Salt flats in South America contain much of the world’s lithium. (Guido Amrein Switzerland / shutterstock)

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the U.S., China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the U.S., perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonization was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonization.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonization,” setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonization?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organization with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonization of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.

On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the U.S. Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

A country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers,” will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Using Natural Gas Will Only Delay Renewable Energy

Smithsonian Magazine

Natural gas may help the U.S. cut down on carbon dioxide emissions, but experts say relying on this "bridge fuel" will only delay the switch to renewable forms of energy.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, modeled energy use scenarios that could play out over the next forty years. They plugged in a range of predictions for the supply of natural gas, accounted for policies the U.S. government might adopt to address global warming and anticipated technological advances.

Abundant natural gas, supplied in part by the fracking and the shale gas boom, will likely further decrease coal use. However, it will also "delay the use and price-competititveness of lower-carbon renewable energy sources," writes lead author Christine Shearer and her colleagues in the report, published in Environmental Research Letters.

Using natural gas could reduce total greenhouse emissions but only by about 2 percent. Government action, such as levying a carbon tax or implementing cap-and-trade policies, would have more of an effect, reports Max Ehrenfreund for the Washington Post:

Given a choice, Shearer said, utilities will choose natural gas if it is cheap and widely available. The forecast is different if the federal government mandates that utilities derive some percentage of their energy from clean sources, as many states have done already. This kind of mandate would do more to slow global warming if there is plenty of gas available, since the gas will replace coal, not renewable energy. Utilities will have to use solar and wind power even if gas is cheaper.

The general message that natural gas isn’t a good bridge holds true even if leaks during production and delivery are eliminated, the researchers find.

Are Artificial Trees the Future of Renewable Energy?

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2007, Eric Henderson watched the heart-shaped leaves of a redbud rustle in the wind outside of his home in Iowa. A gust came through, whipping around the tree’s branches, causing the leaves to oscillate in the turbulent stream of air.

“And that got me thinking,” he says.

Henderson, a molecular biologist at Iowa State University, started toying with the idea of harvesting these random gusts. “It’s not wind that will ever see a turbine because it’s low to the ground and it’s going through little eddies and swirls,” he says. But there is still energy there.

This started him on an obsession with leaves—studying their shapes, aerodynamics, oscillations at the slightest provocation. He recruited two other researchers from the university, Curtis Mosher and Michael McCloskey, to help him, and together, the concept of the faux forest blossomed. The idea was that by creating leaves out of certain materials, they could harvest the energy from the bending leafstalks.

Everything hinged on a method known as piezoelectrics, which has been around for over a century. Discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880, they have been used in a variety of gadgets—from early phonographs (where piezoelectrics turned the vibrations from the needle into electric current) to spark lighters.

The concept is based on manipulation of materials that have a regular array of covalent bonds, a chemical connection in which two atoms share electrons. “In a crystal, all those [bonds] are in a very ordered state,” says Henderson. “If you squeeze it, or push it, or tweak it, it shifts.” And if manipulated properly, this shuttling back and forth of electrons can generate electricity.

The basics of the researchers’ idea was simple: build a tree-shaped electricity generator with plastic leaves that have stalks made out of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), a type of piezoelectric plastic. Plunk the tree outside in any region with a breeze and harvest the energy as the fake leaves sway to and fro.


But, as they recently published in the Journal PLOS ONE, the situation is much more complicated. “It all sounds great until you try to do the physics,” Henderson says.

The biomimetic tree's leaves, modeled after cottonwood leaves, rely on piezoelectrical processes to produce electricity. (Christopher Gannon)

First trouble is the conditions necessary for actually generating electricity, explains McCloskey, who is also an author on the paper. Though the leaves flap in the wind, supposedly generating electricity, the only way to get useful energy is from high frequency, regularly spaced bending of the stalks—a condition rarely found in nature.

It also turns out that the amount of energy produced may be related to how quickly the stalks are bent. When they set a fan up so its blades could actually strike the leaf as it spins, they were able to light an LED. But again, this is not a situation common in nature.

There’s also something known as parasitic capacitance, he explains. Like its namesake, this phenomenon is akin to a leech sucking the lifeforce out of a hapless creature. Though the wind can supposedly generate a lot of energy as the leaves oscillate, various parasitic effects—like the leaf wiggling in multiple directions—steal sips of that energy, effectively canceling out the electrical charges. And in the end, barely anything remains.

To top it off, collecting those remnants of energy is far from a breeze. Due to the nature of the materials, energy is lost during transfer to a battery. And though they could charge a small battery, McCloskey says it would take “a glacial age.”

Curtis Mosher (left), Eric Henderson (middle) and Mike McCloskey (right) have assembled a prototype biomimetic tree that produces electricity. The technology could appeal to a niche market in the future, according to the researchers. (Christopher Gannon)

As the team tirelessly worked to compensate for these problems, they started to see others chasing down the same idea. And though some attempts are better than others, there seems to be a lot of hot air in terms of what people are claiming to be able to do with this tech, according to Henderson and McCloskey.

There are even companies claiming to be able to actually harness this energy. One, called SolarBotanic, hopes to marry an ambitious combination of energy technologies on each leaf of their fake tree: solar power (photovoltaics), heat power (thermoelectrics), and piezoelectrics. The problem, explains McCloskey, is that in comparison to solar energy, piezoelectrics produce a miniscule amount of energy. The company was founded in 2008. Nine years later, the faux forest has yet to materialize.

Last year, Maanasa Mendu won the 2016 Young Scientist Challenge with a similar iteration of a faux, energy-producing tree. But she, too, acknowledged the limitations of piezoelectrics, incorporating flexible solar cells into the device.

“I don't think it's a bad concept to have a [fake] plant or even a real plant that's modified,” says McCloskey. “It's just this particular scheme of piezoelectricity—I don't think it's going to work with current materials.”

The team, however, is also working on another angle: synthesizing a material that mimics a protein found in the human ear that is crucial for amplifying sound. Though the details they could give about the project are limited due to pending invention disclosures, McCloskey can say the material has a piezoelectric efficiency 100,000 times greater than their current system.

By ruling out current methods of piezoelectrics, the team is one step along the path to figuring out the best way to tackle the trees. As Edison purportedly said while struggling to develop a storage battery: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

McCloskey adds: “This is one of those 10,000.”

Could Renewable Energy Be Stored in Balloons in the Ocean?

Smithsonian Magazine

Just short of two miles off the coast of Toronto, a series of six massive, cylindrical balloons rise from the lake floor, standing almost as tall as a two-story house. Their walls contain compressed air with the potential to become electricity.

These balloons are part of an innovative, emissions-free scheme to store renewable energy from the company Hydrostor.

You see, wind energy is wonderful and solar panels are superb, and these technologies becomes more efficient every year. Yet, one of the biggest challenges for renewable energy is powering homes during off-peak times, once the winds die or after the sun sets, when communities often turn towards burning diesel.

“Storage really is the key piece to allow our electrical grid to go renewable,” says CEO of Hydrostor Curtis VanWalleghem.

Hydrostor is one of several companies and research groups who are investigating Underwater Compressed Air Energy Storage (UW-CAES), which could be a low-cost and environmentally-friendly answer to this problem.

In Hydrostor's system, excess energy from solar or wind charges an air compressor. The compressed air is cooled before it shoots down a tube and out to the massive balloons. Just like blowing up a balloon on land, the air fills up the balloons in the ocean, but because of the many feet of water pushing down, the air inside compresses. The deeper the balloons, the more air they can hold. To release the energy, operators can open an onshore valve and the overlying water forces the air out, which spins a turbine to generate power.

“Ultimately we are a very cool underwater air battery,” Cameron Lewis, founder and president of Hydrostor, says in a video released about the project.

The on-shore Hydrostor facilities house a system of air compressors and turbines to convert energy to compressed air and back. (Hydrostor)

CAES isn’t exactly new. The technology has been around since the late 19th century, though it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the first energy storage plant opened in Bremen, Germany, with compressed air underground locked in old salt caverns. Since then, there have been several CAES projects around the world, but the problem always comes down to where you put the air, says VanWalleghem. Steel tanks are extremely expensive and the current low-cost alternatives—underground caverns—are never where you need them, he says. Hydrostor's underwater balloons could at least make the energy storage method possible in communities near the ocean or deep lakes.

Sitting under roughly 180 feet of water, Hydrostor’s six test balloons measure 29.5 feet tall and 16.4 feet wide. They are made of a urethane-coated nylon, which is the same material used to haul shipwrecks from lake and sea floors—a fabric that can withstand a good deal of force from air deep underwater. 

Hydrostor isn’t the only company investigating UW-CAES. Thin Red Line Aerospace independently developed a similar system, and in 2011 and 2012, they deployed several “Energy Bags” off the coast of Scotland's Orkney islands for three months. This initial pilot test gave encouraging results, which they published in a study in collaboration with a team from the University of Nottingham.

“The challenge is a step to grid scale,” says Thin Red Line's founder and president Max de Jong. Or rather, figuring out how to store enough air to produce a significant amount of energy.

Hydrostor's balloons hold a fairly small amount of energy. The company will not disclose the system’s total capacity, but the generators are capped at roughly one megawatt. Even though Hydrostor plans to scale up the system, they need quite a few more balloons to feasibly charge a community. 

To give a little perspective, the London Array, an offshore, 175-turbine wind farm, produces around 4.2 percent of Greater London’s electrical power, according to de Jong. To churn out enough power to compensate for a single day lull in output, you would need around 27,500 of the smaller balloons used for Thin Red Line Aerospace's initial tests of the system, he explains. This equates to just over 7,700 of Hydrostor's bags.

“Can you imagine the plumbing, the piping … and then the environmental impact?” de Jong marvels. “That’s insanity.”

According to VanWalleghem, the parts for Hydrostor’s UW-CAES are all standard pieces carried by industrial suppliers, including General Electric. "There’s no technology or science behind us building bigger systems,” he says. “It’s just us buying a bigger motor or compressor.”

De Jong, however, argues that building larger underwater systems isn't that simple. “We know that the gas turbines are available. We know that the piping is available," he says. "The unknown part is the undersea containment and how deep you [have to] dump it to get any meaningful energy storage.”

Thin Red Line Aerospace Chief Engineer and CEO Maxim de Jong inspects a UW-CAES “Energy Bag” during initial test inflation (Keith Thomson/Thin Red Line Aerospace)

To maximize the amount of energy an underwater system can store and pump into the grid, engineers will have to see just how big they can make the balloons and undersea ballasts, as well as how deep they can install them.

“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work, but there are lots of reasons why it wouldn’t be economical,” says Imre Gyuk, energy storage program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy. “The question of efficiency is always there.”

As the water depth increases, there is that much more water pushing down on the balloons, allowing that much more compression of air. 

"You need something immensely strong. It's almost unfathomable how strong that thing has to be," says de Jong. Based on the material used for space habitats, Thin Red Line developed and patented a "scalable inflatable fabric architecture" that can feasibly hold a whopping 211,888 cubic feet of compressed air underwater—almost 60 times more than the roughly 3,700 cubic feet in each of Hydrostor's balloons.

The other part to this solution of efficiency is going deeper, explains de Jong. His company has been investigating the idea of pairing UW-CAES with floating windmills out in the deep ocean. This solution holds the one-two punch of both massive storage potential from the great water depths and the benefits of wind turbines being out of the path of many seabirds and the sight line of people onshore. The deep storage also keeps the balloons far away from sensitive near shore environments.

There is still much testing to be done for large-scale UW-CAES to become a reality. For one, environmental impacts are still largely unknown. "Noise could be a huge thing," says Eric Schultz, a marine biologist at the University of Connecticut. "Imagine you’re forcing a bunch of gas through what I’d imagine is a fairly narrow pipe." The hiss of massive volumes of air streaming through the pipes, particularly the higher frequencies, could disrupt the behavior of ocean-dwellers. Yet the actual impact of these balloons on fish populations has not yet been verified.

VanWalleghem argues that the underwater balloon system could actually foster the marine biota, perhaps acting like an artificial reef. The balloons' anchors are covered in part by stones that are sizes and types that could support local fish spawning.

That said, as with all marine vessels, curious biota could also be a problem. “There’s always the cookie cutter shark,” says Gyuk. This cat-sized shark attaches itself to surfaces, cutting out smooth oval holes.

With the new pilot program churning along, Hydrostor eagerly awaits data to help them assess the system. The company already has plans in the works to build a bigger system in Aruba. For now, these small island communities, with relatively low energy needs and deep waters nearshore, are likely the best targets for the technology.

American Renewal

National Portrait Gallery

Earth Renewal

National Museum of the American Indian

We Don’t Need a Huge Breakthrough to Make Renewable Energy Viable—It Already Is

Smithsonian Magazine

From the windy plains to the sunny southwest, energy companies around the U.S. are investing heavily in renewable energy production. More than half of the energy production equipment being planned for installation in the next few years is renewable. Yet despite the environmental and economic sense of renewable energy, the public conception still lingers that wind and solar and other renewable tech will never be able to quite handle the job. After all, do we expect factories and homes to go dark when the sun sets or the wind falters?

In the video above, physicist and environmentalist Amory Lovins explains how renewable energy should be able to keep the electricity flowing just fine. We won't need any big technological breakthroughs in batteries or storage technology, he says, or any other huge breakthroughs. All we'll really need is good management and a diverse array of renewable energy production equipment.

Amory Lovins is the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank working on energy and resource use issues. This video was based on a presentation Lovins gave at the 2014 TED conference.

Why Anaerobic Digestion Is Becoming the Next Big Renewable Energy Source

Smithsonian Magazine

When Resourceful Earth Limited announced it would be building a facility to convert 35,000 tons of the local food waste to power each year—enough to provide 80 percent of the energy to the nearby town of Keynsham, U.K—the company became the latest to employ anaerobic digestion to reduce waste, generate energy and cut down on carbon emissions. It’s localism taken to its conclusion, not just what a community buys, but what it gets rid of, too.

“That’s our ideal plan, to make … a system where we’re actually a closed loop,” says Jo Downes, brand manager for Resourceful Earth. “It’s all self contained. Food waste is produced by a community, it’s converted to electricity, and it goes back to that community again. It’s self-sustaining.”

Anaerobic digestion, as a way of converting biomass to energy, has been practiced for hundreds of years, but the effort in Keynsham is one indicator of the technology’s maturation. As focus around the world has turned to renewable energy, anaerobic digestion has started to become an economically viable energy source that capitalizes on humans at our most wasteful—and most creative. Local municipalities, including wastewater facilities, as well as private companies and even the Department of Energy are fine-tuning the tech to make it more efficient and practical.

“Anaerobic digestion is fascinating because it’s a relatively easy, natural way of turning a broad variety of complex waste into a simple fuel gas,” says David Babson, a technology manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. “Closing waste loops and recovering energy from waste presents a profound opportunity to simultaneously improve waste management and address climate change.”

The technology itself is rather simple. Enclose a mixture of moist, organic material like kitchen waste, or waste from humans or farms or food processing facilities, in an oxygen-free container with naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria. The waste breaks down through four different consecutive processes, ultimately releasing carbon dioxide, water, methane, and a dark slurry of organic material and nutrients called digestate. The methane is siphoned off, and refined for use as a fuel, or burned to power turbines.

Image by EBMUD. The East Bay Municipal Utility District in Northern California, realized that in the course of treating wastewater from households, farms and food processing facilities, they could add a step to produce some of their own energy. (original image)

Image by EBMUD. Waste treatment is an energy intensive process, and with the installation of 11 anaerobic digestion units and three turbines, EBMUD now produces 135 percent of its energy needs. (original image)

Modern anaerobic digestion got its start in the wastewater industry. Municipalities, like the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Northern California, realized that in the course of treating wastewater from households, farms and food processing facilities, they could add a step to produce some of their own energy. For EBMUD, the last 15 years have been a journey in search of greater efficiency and energy production capacity. Waste treatment is an energy intensive process, and with the installation of 11 anaerobic digestion units and three turbines, EBMUD now produces 135 percent of its energy needs, leaving additional power that can then be sold, says Jackie Zipkin, manager of wastewater engineering there.

“One of the things that’s exciting about the type of renewable energy that we produce is that it’s 24/7, and when you look at things like solar and wind, they don’t have that baseload capability,” says Zipkin. “I think there’s more and more interest nationally in renewable energy, and particularly from biogas.”

Image by SMUD. Dairies are the biggest methane emitter in California, says Valentino Taingco, a biomass program manager at SMUD. (original image)

Image by SMUD. This generator is fueled by the methane product. (original image)

Image by SMUD. The generator converts the gas to electricity, which is transmitted via power lines to the SMUD grid. (original image)

Meanwhile, in addition to working with hotels and restaurants to develop a food waste collection program, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District has expanded in its own way, working with dairy farms to provide on-site digesters for manure and waste from lagoons. Dairies are the biggest methane emitter in California, says Valentino Tiangco, a biomass program manager at SMUD. As a greenhouse gas, methane is particularly potent, though not long lived; little can be done about ruminant methane belches, but diverting manure to anaerobic digesters can reduce overall methane output, and the utility district is helping Sacramento County dairies get grants to offset the high initial cost of the digesters.

As EBMUD, SMUD and other municipalities realized they could innovate in this field, they began experimenting with different techniques, organic mixtures and processes, and paved the way for other more complicated projects. The cycle of consumption and waste that drives communities could be hacked to close a lot of the holes where valuable waste gets, well, wasted. It’s sort of a “use the whole animal” premise, but with organic waste.

Resourceful Earth is also closing several loops, using surplus heat from the process to dry wood chips that are used in biomass boilers, and sending nutrient-rich digestate to farms for use as fertilizer. If the company can provide 80 percent of the town’s energy, as it claims, it could act as a model for local scale anaerobic digestion, where food, energy and fertilizer all create an efficient, closed loop.

The U.S. Department of Energy is working to optimize distribution and supply chains, but more importantly, says Babson, to refine the chemical process that converts the waste. If they can stop the process short, after it is broken down into alcohols but before it transitions into methane and carbon dioxide, the products could be refined into jet fuel, gasoline and other high-value products—all of which would be considered renewable, since the carbon released was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants that became the food, that became the waste, that became the gas.

The U.S. Could Switch to Mostly Renewable Energy, No Batteries Needed

Smithsonian Magazine

The United States could lower carbon emissions from electricity generation by as much as 78 percent without having to develop any new technologies or use costly batteries, a new study suggests. There’s a catch, though. The country would have to build a new national transmission network so that states could share energy.

“Our idea was if we had a national ‘interstate highway for electrons’ we could move the power around as it was needed, and we could put the wind and solar plants in the very best places,” says study co-author Alexander MacDonald, who recently retired as director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Several years ago, MacDonald was curious about claims that there was no technology available that could mitigate carbon dioxide emissions without doubling or tripling the cost of electricity. When he investigated the issue, he discovered that the studies behind the claims did not incorporate the country’s variable weather very well.

One of the big issues with wind and solar power is that their availability is dependent upon the weather. Solar is only available on sunny days, not during storms or at night. Wind turbines don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow enough—or when it blows too much. Because of this, some studies have argued that these technologies are only viable if large-capacity batteries are available to store energy from these sources to use when they aren’t working. That would raise the cost of electricity well beyond today’s prices.

But “there’s always wind and solar power available somewhere,” MacDonald notes. So he and his colleagues set out to design a low-carbon electricity-generation system that better incorporated—and even took advantage of—the nation’s weather. Their study appears today in Nature Climate Change.

Their computer model showed that by switching to mostly wind and solar power sources—with a little help from natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear power when the weather doesn’t cooperate—the United States could reduce carbon emissions by 33 to 78 percent from 1990 levels, depending on the exact cost of renewable energy and natural gas. (The lower the cost of renewable energy and the higher the cost of natural gas, the more carbon savings.) Adding coal into the mix did not make electricity any cheaper, but it did result in a 37 percent increase in carbon emissions.

The key to this future would be the development of a system for transferring electricity across the country, so that a windy day in North Dakota could power a cloudy, calm day in New York. This would not only require new agreements between states—Texas, for instance, has its own separate power grid—but also an upgrade to the transmission lines that move electrons from one place to another.

In most areas, energy moves over high-voltage alternating current lines, but there are limitations in how far these lines can transmit energy. Switching to high-voltage direct current would let energy producers transmit more electricity a longer distance. That means new wind turbines and solar energy plants could be built in the places that have the most potential for wind and solar energy, because the distance from where energy is needed wouldn’t matter.

Building a new network for transmitting electricity would be a big job. But the computer model showed that it can be cost effective, because in the long run it would allow cheap power to be available, notes study co-author Christopher Clack, a mathematician at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at Colorado University-Boulder.

“By building these transmission facilities, we reduce the costs to remove the carbon rather than increasing it,” he says.

Some states, such as California and New York, are already on the path to this lower-carbon future, and Vermont just approved plans for a high-voltage direct current line from Canada, notes Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University. Last year, he headed a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed how the United States could achieve an all-renewable energy electric grid, with some help from storage technology.

“We can use existing transmission pathways,” Jacobson says, and just improve the lines that run across them. “You don’t need as many new pathways as you think.”

Increasing renewable energy would have benefits in addition to lower carbon emissions, such as reductions in air pollution and lower costs. “There’s little downside to transitioning,” he says.

Plus, MacDonald notes, moving to low-carbon electricity generation could serve as a catalyst for lower carbon emissions in sectors such as home heating and transportation. “No matter what, you have to do electricity first,” he says, and the rest will follow.

Hall's Hair Renewer

National Museum of American History

Time to Renew my CFI

Smithsonian Magazine

Downtown Urban Renewal Area Landmarks

National Portrait Gallery

Esquire Suede Renew with silicones

National Museum of American History

Hall's Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer

National Museum of American History

Renew Our Common Struggle

National Museum of American History
An anti-Vietnam protest poster used in Washington DC in 1975.

Earth Renewal, Earth Return

National Museum of the American Indian

Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Dr. Uddin was a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Uddin addresses the relationship between zoo renovations and attitudes towards urban America in the 1960s and 1970s. She argues that the drives to protect endangered species and to ensure larger and safer zoos were shaped by attitudes toward urban decay, suburban growth, and attitudes toward race. She uses the National Zoological Park and San Diego Zoo, among others, as case studies for her argument about attitudes toward cities and race, and their impact on zoo design.

NASA, Smithsonian renew hunt for Antarctic meteorites

Smithsonian Insider

NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian recently renewed their agreement to search for, collect and curate Antarctic meteorites in a partnership known as […]

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Renwick Gallery Reopens with Renewed Sense of ‘Wonder’

Smithsonian Insider

An intersecting prism of light arcs overhead—made of thousands of strands of thread. A massive hemlock tree hovers above the floor, occupying an equally massive […]

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