As scientists and ordinary citizens see increasing signs of climate change, forward-thinking leaders on every continent are taking steps to make our electricity grids less dependent on fossil fuels. For climate activists, the goal is a grid that obtains 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources like wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays. Most analysts have concluded that transitioning to a 100% renewable grid would be feasible but expensive. Pessimists, on the other hand, doubt whether a 100% renewable grid is even possible.
Here’s the good news: the cost of wind turbines and photovoltaic modules has dropped faster than most experts predicted. In many parts of the world, it is now cheaper to build a new wind or solar facility than a new coal-fired plant of the same capacity. Global wind and solar capacity continues to increase at a rapid rate, driven in most cases by simple economics.
The bad news, as most GBA readers know, is that renewable energy sources are intermittent. If we want a grid that is 100% renewable, we need to include some method of energy storage. Several technologies for energy storage already exist; the main hurdle to their deployment is not technical — it’s the high cost of the systems. At current rates of renewable energy deployment, a 100% renewable energy grid in the United States is still a long way off. For anyone aware of the looming deadlines that we face to avoid climate catastrophe, our slow adoption of energy storage solutions is bad news.
Many forward-thinking renewable energy engineers are now working on islands. Of course, some islands have no electricity at all. Others have undersea cables that connect to a mainland grid. The interesting ones are those that have independent electricity grids that depend on local electricity generation — because these are the islands where the…