Can Obama Do for the Grid What Eisenhower Did for Highways?
12:21 p.m. | Updated |
Building on earlier discussions of President Obama’s options on energy and the environment, here’s a “Your Dot” contribution from Lee C. Harrison, a frequent comment contributor who’se a senior research associate at the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center of the University of Albany:

A map of the solar energy potential in the United States (the colors darkened with more kilowatt hours per square meter per day). More background here.
The United States is one of the most favored nations for combined wind and solar resources. Few people are surprised that our solar energy availability is highest in the southwest deserts, but many do not appreciate the degree to which wind energy is strongest at sea along the coasts, and in a stripe down the central plains states. Detractors of renewable energy often claim that ‘the intermittency problem’ prevents wind and solar power ever providing anything beyond a small fraction of our nation’s energy. This claim is simply untrue. A recent study [footnote 1] shows that even the Atlantic region of the United States can achieve electric energy self-sufficiency, using a combination of wind and solar, aided by storage which is feasible today. However it will be both more advantageous and lower cost if the United States commits to the construction of a true national power distribution grid.

A map of the potential wind resource over the United States (at an elevation of 80 meters aboveground). Click here for more maps and larger versions.
The contiguous lower 48 states span three time zones, and usually have two to three frontal weather systems moving across them. Both wind and solar availability are affected by the moving systems; averaging across the United States makes the fractional variability much smaller. To achieve this we need a far more capable distribution grid, turning the 48 states (and likely much of Canada and northern Mexico) into a single unified power pool, capable of moving large amounts of power. Studies demonstrate this is practical today, and would result in economies even without renewable energy, because it would reduce the number of power plants which must be built/maintained, and creates a bidding pool far more resistant to price manipulation. It strongly improves the case for wind and solar if it can ship power from the areas of strong resource to markets far away. [footnote 2]

Improvements in how we use energy are economic “low-hanging fruit” and are already underway. We need improvement in building efficiency and particularly air-conditioning. It is the latter which is the largest driver of peak electrical loads.

Peak loads correlate very well with solar availability (for obvious reasons) but locally the peak lasts later than the sun does. Improved building performance and AC performance trim this; AC systems which “store coolth” are straightforward and increasing in use today. Solar power shipped from the American southwest can handle east-coast loads (the majority of US electrical consumption) well after sunset.

Power management can also be done on the “demand side” by implementing near-realtime pricing to end-users Some storage or backup/peaking power generation will still be needed.

This transition need not be difficult or costly given a national grid. An obvious example is “the Portuguese model.” They simply use their existing fossil power plants as backup. Fossil-fueled peaking/backup plants will produce little CO2 output as long as their duty cycle is small, and their other pollutants become more tolerable too. As battery cars and plug-hybrids become more common the storage capacity and load-shifting (for charging) of the transportation fleet becomes very favorable in terms of load management — ditto the potential to use the fleet of parked batteries to assist during peak loads.

Nothing stops us now other than the lack of national political will to overcome inertia and the entrenched regional and state regulatory oligopolies. We need an “Eisenhower Interstate” program for a national electrical grid. It can then make fossil-powered generation intermittent!
12:21 P.M. Update
I accidentally left out Harrison’s footnotes. Here they are (with annotations added in text above):

1. Journal of Power Sources, 2012. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpowsour.2012.09.054, available by free download from here.

2. Green Power Superhighways, Building a Path to America’s Clean Energy Future.


Archer, C. L.; Jacobson, M. Z. (2007). “Supplying Baseload Power and Reducing Transmission Requirements by Interconnecting Wind Farms.” Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology 46 (11): 1701–1717. Bibcode 2007JApMC..46.1701A.

Czisch, Gregor; Gregor Giebel. “Realisable Scenarios for a Future Electricity Supply based 100% on Renewable Energies.” Institute for Electrical Engineering – Efficient Energy Conversion. University of Kassel, Germany and Risø National Laboratory, Technical University of Denmark.
Back to original post: For more, explore the Energy Department’s Web site and read Ken Silverstein’s recent Forbes post, “Smart Grid May be Shortest Route to Obama’s Green Energy Goals.”

Here’s a useful Scientific American “smart grid” explainer:

energy, engineering, politics, technology, Eisenhower, Dwight David, Energy and Power, Obama, Barack, Solar Energy, Wind Power