Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, has a big smile, a big handshake and a big personality. In last year’s election, he won big, with 72 percent of the vote. The key to his success? “Without being too self-reflective,” he says, “I just like people.” He’s a Republican, and his priorities are party staples: go light on regulation, be tough on crime, keep taxes low. But the thing that is winning him international renown is straight out of the liberal playbook—green power. Thanks to his (big) advocacy, Georgetown (pop. 67,000) last year became the largest city in the United States to be powered entirely by renewable energy.
Consumers throughout the United States have a third green power option: Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs or sometimes "green tags"). A REC represents the environmental attributes or benefits of renewable electricity generation (usually one credit = one kilowatt-hour). RECs can be purchased in almost any quantity and are usually available from someone other than your electricity provider. What you pay for is the benefit of adding clean, renewable energy generation to the regional or national electricity grid. The overall environmental benefit of purchasing a green pricing or green marketing product versus RECs is exactly the same. RECs provide a "green" option for people in any state, but are ideal for people who live in states where green pricing and green marketing options are not available.
Smart grid refers to a class of technology people are using to bring utility electricity delivery systems into the 21st century, using computer-based remote control and automation. These systems are made possible by two-way communication technology and computer processing that has been used for decades in other industries. They are beginning to be used on electricity networks, from the power plants and wind farms all the way to the consumers of electricity in homes and businesses. They offer many benefits to utilities and consumers—mostly seen in big improvements in energy efficiency on the electricity grid and in the energy users’ homes and offices.
While the material cost is significantly higher for all-glass fiber blades than for hybrid glass/carbon fiber blades, there is a potential for tremendous savings in manufacturing costs when labor price is considered. Utilizing carbon fiber enables for simpler designs that use less raw material. The chief manufacturing process in blade fabrication is the layering of plies. By reducing the number of layers of plies, as is enabled by thinner blade design, the cost of labor may be decreased, and in some cases, equate to the cost of labor for glass fiber blades.
Because one obstacle to adopting wind and solar power is reliability—what happens on calm, cloudy days?—recent improvements in energy-storage technology, a.k.a. batteries, are helping accelerate adoption of renewables. Last May, for example, Tucson Electric Power signed a deal for solar energy with storage, which can mitigate (if not entirely resolve) concerns about how to provide power on gray days. The storage upped the energy cost by $15 per megawatt hour. By the end of the year, the Public Service Company of Colorado had been quoted a storage fee that increased the cost of a megawatt hour by only $3 to $7, a drop of more than 50 percent. In a landmark achievement, Tesla installed the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in South Australia last December, to store wind-generated power. But by then Hyundai Electric was at work in the South Korean metropolis of Ulsan on a battery that was 50 percent bigger.
Other renewable energy technologies are still under development, and include cellulosic ethanol, hot-dry-rock geothermal power, and marine energy. These technologies are not yet widely demonstrated or have limited commercialization. Many are on the horizon and may have potential comparable to other renewable energy technologies, but still depend on attracting sufficient attention and research, development and demonstration (RD&D) funding.
According to a 2011 projection by the International Energy Agency, solar power generators may produce most of the world's electricity within 50 years, reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases that harm the environment. Cedric Philibert, senior analyst in the renewable energy division at the IEA said: "Photovoltaic and solar-thermal plants may meet most of the world's demand for electricity by 2060 – and half of all energy needs – with wind, hydropower and biomass plants supplying much of the remaining generation". "Photovoltaic and concentrated solar power together can become the major source of electricity", Philibert said.
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The windwheel of Hero of Alexandria (10 AD – 70 AD) marks one of the first recorded instances of wind powering a machine in history. However, the first known practical wind power plants were built in Sistan, an Eastern province of Persia (now Iran), from the 7th century. These "Panemone" were vertical axle windmills, which had long vertical drive shafts with rectangular blades. Made of six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth material, these windmills were used to grind grain or draw up water, and were used in the gristmilling and sugarcane industries.
A typical home uses approximately 10,932 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year (about 911 kWh per month). Depending on the average wind speed in the area, a wind turbine rated in the range of 5 to 15 kW would be required to make a significant contribution to this demand. A 1.5-kW wind turbine will meet the needs of a home requiring 300 kWh per month in a location with a 14 MPH (6.26 meters per second) annual average wind speed. The manufacturer, dealer, or installer can provide you with the expected annual energy output of the turbine as a function of annual average wind speed. The manufacturer will also provide information about any maximum wind speeds at which the turbine is designed to operate safely. Most turbines have automatic overspeed-governing systems to keep the rotor from spinning out of control in extremely high winds.
The most common type of residential solar is called solar PV. The PV stands for “photovoltaic,” and a solar PV system is a electrical system that consists of solar panels, an inverter, a meter, and a few other components (mounting, cabling, etc.). A solar PV system requires little to no maintenance for years, and if you’re in a place with the right amount of sunlight, you can end up saving money, while also going green.
America is embracing renewables, slowly. In 2016, Massachusetts passed a law promoting a huge investment in wind and hydropower; the first megawatt is expected to hit the grid in 2020. Early this year New York State announced plans to spend 12 years building the infrastructure for a $6 billion offshore wind power industry. Hawaii has pledged to be powered entirely by renewable energy—in 2045. Atlanta’s goal is 2035 and San Francisco’s is 2030. Typically, plans to convert to sustainable energy stretch on for decades.
Hydro-electricity and geothermal electricity produced at favourable sites are now the cheapest way to generate electricity. Renewable energy costs continue to drop, and the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) is declining for wind power, solar photovoltaic (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP) and some biomass technologies. Renewable energy is also the most economic solution for new grid-connected capacity in areas with good resources. As the cost of renewable power falls, the scope of economically viable applications increases. Renewable technologies are now often the most economic solution for new generating capacity. Where "oil-fired generation is the predominant power generation source (e.g. on islands, off-grid and in some countries) a lower-cost renewable solution almost always exists today". A series of studies by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory modeled the "grid in the Western US under a number of different scenarios where intermittent renewables accounted for 33 percent of the total power." In the models, inefficiencies in cycling the fossil fuel plants to compensate for the variation in solar and wind energy resulted in an additional cost of "between $0.47 and $1.28 to each MegaWatt hour generated"; however, the savings in the cost of the fuels saved "adds up to $7 billion, meaning the added costs are, at most, two percent of the savings."
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Many companies are taking the push for 100 percent renewables seriously because they see it as good business — not just today, but for the long term. At the time of publication, 152 companies of various sizes have made a commitment to go 100 percent renewable through RE100. Big names like Apple and Google have already met their targets, while other companies are looking out further into the future, some as far as 2040. That timeline indicates companies are looking beyond today’s prices and present-day marketing benefits.
Which is to say that Ross and his co-workers had options. And the city was free to take advantage of them because of a rather unusual arrangement: Georgetown itself owns the utility company that serves the city. So officials there, unlike those in most cities, were free to negotiate with suppliers. When they learned that rates for wind power could be guaranteed for 20 years and solar for 25 years, but natural gas for only seven years, the choice, Ross says, was a “no-brainer.”
The overwhelming majority of electricity produced worldwide is used immediately, since storage is usually more expensive and because traditional generators can adapt to demand. However both solar power and wind power are variable renewable energy, meaning that all available output must be taken whenever it is available by moving through transmission lines to where it can be used now. Since solar energy is not available at night, storing its energy is potentially an important issue particularly in off-grid and for future 100% renewable energy scenarios to have continuous electricity availability.
Photovoltaics were initially solely used as a source of electricity for small and medium-sized applications, from the calculator powered by a single solar cell to remote homes powered by an off-grid rooftop PV system. Commercial concentrated solar power plants were first developed in the 1980s. The 392 MW Ivanpah installation is the largest concentrating solar power plant in the world, located in the Mojave Desert of California.