With non renewable sources, you can burn more coal or natural gas when the demand for electricity peaks – usually in the early afternoon during the course of a day, or the hot summer over a year. However, with solar or wind, you are depending on a energy source you can’t turn on or off – and the peak supply for renewable energy doesn’t always coincide with the peak demand.
There are a couple of solutions to this problem. One is to have a large coordinated energy grid that supplies energy from far away places (chances are the wind is blowing somewhere enough to power everything you need it for, just not necessarily near New York, or where ever). For this to work, you would need a “Smart Grid” that can intelligently route power from one place to another.
Another method would be to build much more capacity than you need, and turn it on as you need it. This is currently what we do with natural gas generators – but it is expensive. It would also be expensive to build wind turbines that you only use sometimes, instead of getting the full use out of them 24/7. Hydro power lends itself well to being a variable power source – you can let the water out when you need it – and shut the dam when you don’t. This is partially why the Pacific northwest is capable of accomodating large amounts of renewable energy.
The third approach to solving this problem is storing the energy – this is a very active area of research. People are working on batteries, pressurizing underground caverns with energy from windmills when the wind blws, then letting the pressure blow the air out when needed, or using things called fly wheels, which are basically large and very heavy wheels that spin very fast – and some of the rotational energy can be turned into electricity on demand.
So that is basically what is wrong with the current electric grid, and what people are thinking of as solutions to the challenge of getting energy from one place to another, or from today – when the sun is shining to tomorrow when it may be cloudy.
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