APS News | Research

The Path to a Clean-Energy Electric Grid Has Roadblocks, but Physicists Can Help

At the April Meeting, experts discussed the challenges to achieving a 100% clean-energy electricity sector.

Published May 11, 2023
Solar panels at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Solar panels at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.
Credit: Werner Slocum / NREL

The Biden administration’s plan to mitigate climate change calls for a 100% carbon-free US electricity sector by 2035 — just twelve years from now. The installed capacity of wind, solar, and battery storage power plants is rapidly rising, but there’s still a long way to go — and the barriers to success may not be what you think, says Joseph Rand, a researcher in the electricity markets and policy department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

In an invited talk at the APS April Meeting 2023, sponsored by the APS Forum on Physics and Society, Rand first gave attendees the good news: Efforts to generate alternative energy efficiently and inexpensively have paid off.

Before they can be built, proposed power plants undergo an interconnection study that determines the cost of connecting them to the US electrical grid. Rand and his colleagues recently looked at 10,200 requests in the queue and found that nearly all were for zero-carbon projects. Requests for gas power plants have decreased since 2014, and requests for nuclear and coal are practically zero. That’s because wind and solar make sense “from a simple economic standpoint,” Rand said.

The US’s existing power plant fleet produces about 227 gigawatts of power from wind, solar, and storage, roughly 10-15% of the projected need. Studies show that to be 100% clean, the electricity sector needs that number to be 1,500 to 2,000 gigawatts. It’s a big jump, but Rand noted that of the 2,000 gigawatts in the interconnection queue, the vast majority are from wind, solar, and storage projects.

So what’s the problem? The main barriers “are social, institutional, and regulatory in nature,” he said. For example, his team found that only 21% of the proposed projects that requested an interconnection study between 2000 and 2017 were built by the end of 2022, and 72% had withdrawn. Studies suggest that’s probably because developers shoulder the entire cost of updating the grid to accommodate their plants — a cost that’s often prohibitively expensive — and because, for procedural reasons, it can take more than three years to get a request approved in some areas.

Another challenge: acquiring local building permits for new plants. “Research is telling us that solar and wind can be deployed more quickly and at lower cost if projects are structured to address the concerns and meet the needs of these hosting communities,” Rand explained. He noted that developers are moving in this direction, but reaching alternative energy targets will require many more communities to agree to live near power plants.

If the United States succeeds at generating enough power from alternative sources, transmitting it to consumers will take a significant investment. The grid was designed to accommodate fewer, larger, and more centralized power plants, but the future looks “wildly different,” Rand said. Given the new landscape and rising electricity demands, the country will need to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines. But there’s no coordinated strategy and the current trend is in the opposite direction, he told attendees.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research and an invited speaker in a different session, sees opportunities for physicists to help solve the transmission problem. Instead of focusing on new lines, he suggests going back to the basics: How can we get electrons where they need to go, when needed, using existing tools and new technology? The answer may be a combination of strategies like distributed energy, demand response, seasonal thermal storage, and grid optimizing technologies — but we need people to model this, Makhijani says.

Modeling aside, Rand acknowledges these challenges are not strictly scientific. But we need science and engineering experts to “engage with the social aspects,” he said. “We need to make sure that we're not just staying in our disciplinary silos and that we're thinking about interdisciplinary solutions to these problems that are really complex.”

To do this, he encourages scientific meeting organizers to invite social scientists to share different dimensions of problems at their meetings. He also encourages scientists to tie their work and motivation to pressing social issues, advocate for key policy changes, and engage with their local communities.

“We have a long way to go,” Rand says. Still, he remains cautiously optimistic. “We're actually doing pretty well if you look at the growth rates of these technologies.”

Kendra Redmond

Kendra Redmond is a writer based in Bloomington, Minnesota.


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