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Wind and solar power

June 4, 2021 | James Lin

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You may have heard a lot about power from renewable sources these days, particularly wind and solar. Some say it is the future of clean power generation, while others say it could not reliably supply all of our energy needs.

Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar power have no greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, wind and sunlight are free! The cost is incurred when we convert wind and sunlight to a form of energy  that we can use, like electricity.  This cost has decreased in recent years. By some estimates, the cost of wind-powered electricity has fallen 70% in the last 10 years, and the cost of solar has fallen a whopping 90%! This has happened thanks to technological innovation and economies of scale. Not only that, but building new renewable generators may even already be cheaper than operating existing fossil fuel plants! So what’s there not to like about renewables?

The problem is the wind does not always blow nor does the sun always shine, and they may be unavailable when we need them. This intermittency means fossil fuels likely will continue to have a role as backstop supply, until new technology is developed. An example of such technology is storage, ranging from batteries similar to the ones in your phone or computer but much larger, to pumped water flowing downhill to power turbines, which would send power to the electricity grid when renewables do not.  Another example is increased use of smart meters, which display the real time retail price of electricity and allow consumers to adapt their usage  accordingly, such as using the washing machine or dryer  outside of peak hours.

So do renewables like wind and solar have a bright future or is it overblown attention (puns intended)? You may be aware of Canada’s pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. While some provinces already produce most of their electricity through renewables, a few others are still reliant on fossil fuels. Renewables are already contributing greatly to clean power generation. Technological and policy innovation will help to resolve the intermittency and storage challenges, and renewables are poised to play an important and welcome role in Canada reaching net zero.

 

Unrelated ending comic (source: https://xkcd.com/327/)

James Lin

James is the son of INZ founder Charles. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Alberta, and his day job is with Alberta Energy. The views expressed on this site do not reflect those of his employer.

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