Thursday, June 30, 2016

Saving the World with Electricity?

Many of us have pretty much given up hope of heading off climate change before we go off the cliff, now predicted to occur around 2050.

We've heard that solutions such as wind and solar energy, though plentiful, aren't competitive in price, and they're intermittent. The sun doesn't shine at night, after all.

But what if we had a way to transport energy where it's needed much more cheaply without needing extra storage? And what if that system both ameliorated climate change and made our energy grid more secure against threats such as terrorism, electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), and solar flares?

At the Boulder-Denver annual meeting of the American MeteorologicalSociety (AMS) this week, we had the privilege of hearing a keynote talk by Alexander ("Sandy") MacDonald, former head of the NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory and Past President of the American Meteorological Society. MacDonald presented the exciting idea that the U.S. could build an underground electical superhighway system for renewable energy, which he compared to Eisenhower's initiative to build the Interstate Highway system.

MacDonald noted that the current electrical grid is vulnerable to many problems, and even a single transformer can take months to replace. In case of massive failure, adequate supplies of food and water could be disrupted, overwhelming police and disaster recovery efforts.

MacDonald had the idea that working over a large region (such as the whole continental U.S.) would simplify the solution, because it would smooth out the variability of the wind and sunshine. Working with a supercomputer simulation model, he and his colleagues designed an energy distribution grid that would satisfy needs for electrical energy throughout the country. Some use of natural gas would continue for occasional backup.

The system would use high-voltage direct current (HVDC) and could be buried underground and shielded to make it less vulnerable to electromagnetic and solar pulses.

The Pros

Why is this idea so exciting? It's because it seems so much more do-able than many climate geo-engineering solutions we've heard about, such as injecting sulfur in the stratosphere, orbiting big mirrors, or increasing cloudiness and albedo. Here are the pros I see:

o The Interstates were built without disruption of the roads already in place. The same could be done with electricity.

o If completed by 2030, carbon emissions from power generation could be reduced greatly once the system was fully functional. If the rest of the world, such as Asia and Europe, built their own systems, the climate problem could be solved.

o Rather than using taxpayer funds, the system could be built by private contractors, as was done for the recent upgrade of the Boulder turnpike. Multiple contractors worked on sections of the highway simultaneously, speeding up completion. MacDonald estimates 8 million jobs could be created in the U.S.

o The technology for the electrical pipeline already exists, and cable could be buried alongside many rights-of-way, such as railroads.

o The U.S. electrical system would be much less susceptible to power disruptions.

More information

MacDonald's work has been published in the peer-reviewed Nature Climate Change,
and he wrote a guest commentary of his results in the June
2 Washington Post.

Photo: Energy Corridor from Niagara Falls, near Buffalo Airport, NY, by Eric Chaffee.

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