Why wind and solar power are such a challenge for energy grids
Last week, I described a modeling study showing that it is possible to run the entire US economy on renewable energy: wind, water, and solar power. Technologically, the tools are available. Economically, the total system costs would be lower than a business-as-usual scenario. But politically, the plan is wildly ambitious, to the point of fantasy.
Among other things, it would require that policy and investment decisions be approached holistically, coordinated across multiple sectors, and made on the basis of multidecadal cost-benefit horizons, with enormous upfront investments paying off in health and climate benefits that unfold over decades.
That is not the way humans typically approach big challenges. Engineers aren’t granted the power to redesign large systems from scratch. Energy is not just a physical system, it’s a social and political system too, and social and political change is unpredictable and messy. It lurches and stalls. Progress, when it comes, is often kludged, backward-looking, and incumbent-protecting. It’s a fallen world we live in, but we muddle through.
Barring an unexpected sociopolitical mobilization on the scale of World War II, it’s likely we’re going to muddle through the transition to clean energy. That puts the challenge in a different light. It forces us to grapple with the system as it currently exists, with all its entrenched incumbents, sunk costs, and behavioral inertia. And it forces us to confront trade-offs between our ideals and political realities, trade-offs that cannot be waved away with ritual invocations of “political will.” Thinking this way is more vexed and less fun than blue-sky modeling, but it’s a necessary complement.