As average global temperatures continue their upward trend, the search for less-polluting alternatives to fossil fuels continues. Electric vehicles that cost far less to operate than their gas-powered counterparts are gaining in popularity, especially with the rise of innovative manufacturers like Tesla, which has managed to make an electric vehicle that is both efficient and powerful. Solar-powered cell phone chargers and wind energy for your home are more widely available than they were 10 years ago and certainly more reasonably priced.
Recognizing the need for a shift away from fossil fuels, states across the U.S. have passed mandatory and voluntary renewable portfolio standards (RPS). RPS programs help facilitate renewable energy development so that green energy sources contribute higher percentages of the overall energy production in the state. Some entire regions have banded together in a concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New England's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI – pronounced "Reggie") proves that market-based, cap-and-trade programs can produce a net reduction in greenhouse gas.
Solving the storage problem
Renewable energy is becoming more of a real possibility and less of a pipe(-less) dream. However, we must acknowledge the shortcomings of fossil-free fuels and work to resolve the biggest problem with electricity generation from renewable energy sources – storage.
Coal and nuclear power plants may be dirty, polluting and toxic, but they have one thing going for them that renewable energy sources don't. They can produce power and feed electricity into the grid 24/7. It's a basic principle of electricity generation: Once electricity is created, it has to be used right away. It is true that we can store energy, for a time, in batteries. However, they are expensive, have a short lifespan of about five years and are inefficient (batteries lose 30-40 percent of the energy going into them). So, to supply electricity to the grid 24/7, you would have to have 24 continuous hours of sunlight or wind blowing at a steady speed. Since we know this isn't always the case, most discussions around renewable energy also focus on the need to have coal and nuclear power to back up the grid when winds are calm and sunlight is scarce.
The discussion started to shift in late 2012 when the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College published research to support their findings that "renewable energy could fully power a large electric grid 99.9 percent of the time by 2030." The study was the subject of an article on ScienceDaily.com, which reported that the model focused on cost minimization as opposed to matching electricity demand and production. The study acknowledges the prohibitive cost and inefficiency of the battery-storage option. The study abandons the idea of storage altogether and suggests that a larger grid, connected to a wider geographic area could take advantage of a more diverse array of renewable sources. For example, inland wind may be very still at the same time coastal wind is strong and steady. A grid that is connected to both regions could supply electricity to both areas. With this approach, battery storage, coal and nuclear would be needed far less often.
The clock is ticking
While the need for a stronger renewable energy presence is apparent, how we get there is still the subject of much debate. It will require investment, innovation and broad cooperation among municipalities and energy producers. This last caveat will be the most difficult to overcome, and after passing the 400ppm CO2 threshold in April 2013, the need for a greater renewable energy presence in American energy production is more urgent than ever.