Laptop © Ulrich Willmünder

Rethinking Reliability

Variability isn’t unique to renewable energy sources – and we already know how to deal with it.

Powering the world entirely through renewable energies is going to bring about some logistical challenges, as technological change always does.

Powering the world entirely through renewable energies is going to bring about some logistical challenges, as technological change always does.

One of these challenges is renewable energy variability. Something we’ve come to expect from our energy system is that everything will be available precisely when we want it. Having unlimited energy available on demand does not easily lend itself to sustainable energy usage, which, of course, is part of the reason we started adopting alternative energy sources in the first place. Renewables are not as easily made available on demand – the term “renewable” itself suggests time will need to be set aside for restoring and replenishing.

Part of creating a world powered by renewable energy thus seems to be about reorienting our view that energy can and should be extracted from any location and squeezed out of every rock. Wind power is simply less effective in locations without a lot of wind. Solar panels are great in sunny locales, but useful mainly as expensive park benches if, for example, your city is living in pure darkness.

Minute to minute the wind may stop blowing and the sun may hide behind clouds, which means there is an element of inherent unpredictability to some forms of renewable energy – a fact which opponents have not been shy about exploiting.

Even as an environmentalist, I confess that a certain level of unpredictability might be more than I can stomach. I don’t think I’m giving away too much of my enviro-cred to say that if the laptop on which I am currently typing was shutting itself off subject to the whim of the clouds outside, I would eventually launch the machine through my living room window. (And then walk outside and place it in the appropriate bin, because my rage does not supersede my desire to recycle.) Perhaps you are a more patient person than I am, but allow me to conservatively conclude that absolute energy unpredictability would not be a particular aid in our effort to introduce more renewables into the world.

The recently published REN21 Renewables Global Futures Report takes on a few of these assumptions regarding the inevitability of variability. The report cites a litany of emerging technologies and trends with the potential to greatly reduce the problems posed by variability, explaining, “utilities have contended with variability since the dawn of centralized power networks.”

A sampling:

  • Power supply modelling that incorporates advance weather forecasts for wind speeds and sunlight
  • Creating a buffer against variability by increasing reserves through reduced power demand at particular times
  • Co-generation of hydrogen or heat to fill supply gaps
  • Strengthened transmission capacity, including renewable energy sharing agreements between countries

The report observes that “some of these options are already widely used even without the presence of renewables.”

Variability, then, can be worked around. Most encouragingly, many of the logistical hurdles have already been cleared. Maybe the future does not hold unlimited energy at any time, and maybe we shouldn’t be presented with that much temptation to overuse anyway, but the newest evidence suggests we can remain optimistic that a renewable energy-powered future will not be one in which front yards are littered with the wreckage of laptops which shut down at just the wrong mome–

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.