Renewable Energy FAQs

Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid

Q.   What is the American Physical Society (APS) and why should policymakers or the public care about the findings of this report on Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid?

A.     The APS represents 48,000 physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry and includes nearly 60 Nobel Prize Laureates.  APS has long been active in the area of energy policy; for example, last year, APS released a major study on energy efficiency, and a number of the findings were implemented in legislation.  APS also released a seminal energy efficiency study in 1975 that led to dramatic improvements in the efficiency of appliances, most notably refrigerators and air conditioners. Today, U.S. policymakers are considering a national renewable electricity standard (RES) to strengthen energy security, create jobs and reduce carbon pollution. But successfully integrating renewable energy onto the electricity grid requires overcoming several technological barriers. The study panel, composed of scientific and technical experts, identified the technical challenges facing a national RES and provided a set of recommendations to address them.

Q.   Why did APS undertake this study?

A.     To date, 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, have established a renewable electricity standard (RES) that requires producing a minimum share of electrical generation from renewable sources. In addition to state polices, federal lawmakers have developed proposals to establish a national RES in the near term, making the need for technological developments more urgent. Sensible energy policy needs to be based on technical realities and knowledge, which APS can help to provide. 

Q.   What is the primary finding of the report?

A.     The APS report, Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid, concluded that the federal government and power industry must focus more closely on developing new grid-level energy storage technologies as they consider a national renewable electricity standard. Without a strong emphasis on developing storage devices, it will be difficult for the United States to meet the requirements of a meaningful national RES. Wind and solar energy are variable by nature: The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. The amount of electricity a consumer or business has available to complete household chores or operate a factory could change in a matter of seconds, hours or days. For this reason, alone, robust energy storage is essential.

Q.   Does APS support a national RES?

A.     APS supports a national RES that is phased in over a period of time. One of the most important functions of a national RES would be to begin a unification of the very fragmented U.S. electrical grid. Doing so would essentially put states on the same page, an important step in the wider adoption of using more wind and solar for energy generation.  A phased-in approach would provide scientists and engineers with sufficient time to address the technical challenges posed by loading renewable electricity on the grid. APS would oppose an RES that required a quick ramp up of renewable electricity.

Q.   How much will it cost to carry out the research and development needed to meet the challenges the study panel identified?

A.     Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy, several offices already are funding research on energy storage including Basic Energy Sciences (BES) programs and Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) efforts in energy storage in the Office of Science, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) programs, and the Advanced Research Projects Energy (ARPA-E) programs. These programs have contributed enormously to the advancement of energy storage, particularly in the important challenge of electric vehicles. This APS report highlights the need to build on these advances and make the challenges of grid scale energy storage a high priority to enable renewable energy integration. The report also illustrates that it is prudent to advance a balanced portfolio of investments that would address long term basic research challenges as well as short term issues. For example, the proposed Basic Energy Sciences energy innovation hub in energy storage represents an important research priority.

Q.   Google recently announced a $5 billion, 10-year plan to invest in a network of deepwater transmission lines to bring power from offshore wind farms to the East Coast.  Are the recommendations in your report relevant to this project?

A.     Yes. The variability of wind power remains an issue for offshore wind farms.

Q.   How does the U.S. compare to its international counterparts in the area of renewable energy?

A.     The U.S. is very much behind other countries in both using renewable energy for electricity generation and even manufacturing renewable energy equipment. For example, China has doubled its wind capacity since 2005 and has become the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels and wind turbines. Furthermore, after rapid expansion of its renewable energy sector, China passed amendments in 2009 that strengthened its Renewable Energy Law, a framework for regulating renewable energy in the country.