Wind, Sun, Water: Getting Past The Geography Of Renewables

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of National Geographic. Author credit goes to Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson of Public Agenda.

One of the interesting – and challenging – problems with energy policy is that it’s both global and local. The implications of climate change are worldwide, and so is the problem of meeting surging demand. And certain kinds of energy, like petroleum, are traded in truly global markets.

When it comes to electricity, however, what you get is the result of the fact that not every solution works in every place – or at least, not as well. This recently released map of hydropower use  from the U.S. Energy Information Administration makes the point. Hydropower depends on whether you’ve got a river to dam, and whether you’re willing to dam it. So it’s no surprise that hydropower provides a huge amount of electricity in some states (more than 60 percent in Washington state, for example) and not much at all elsewhere.

Hydropower, like other renewables, depends a lot of geography, but there are ways around that.

Hydropower, like other renewables, depends a lot of geography, but there are ways around that.

But that’s true of electricity overall. Only a handful of power sources provide electricity in this country, and the source you rely on depends a lot on where you live. In New England, most power is coming from natural gas and nuclear power (Vermont  gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear, and Massachusetts  gets 60 percent from natural gas). In the Midwest, they’re mostly using coal (three-quarters of all the electricity in Kansas comes from coal plants).

Even so, you can always replace one kind of conventional power plant with another (in fact there’s a long-term trend moving  away from coal and toward natural gas). When we start talking about renewables, however, geography plays a crucial role. Certain parts of the country are just better suited to certain kinds of power. For example, have a look at this map of wind power potential from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory:

The wind blows everywhere, but not at the same speed or strength. Chart: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Wind turbines have to make the best possible use of geography, since the wind doesn’t blow at the same speed every day or at every height. When you look at the map, you can see why states like Texas and Minnesota are major players in wind-generated electricity, and other places may always be also-rans.

There’s a similar pattern with solar power. Nearly every place can make some use of it, but obviously it works best where it’s, well, sunny.

As this map of photovoltaic potential shows, the Sun Belt does have an advantage when it comes to solar power. Chart: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Geography may not be destiny, if we can get the power grid that we need. Right now our aging grid can’t ship electricity the distances it needs to go in order to allow wind power from the Great Plains to make it to major cities, or to deal with the peaks and valleys of production caused by weather. It’s just another reason why we need to make investments in the grid – not just to replace equipment that’s wearing out, but to make the most out of new opportunities.

With proper support, renewables could change the energy landscape, even if they’re still dependent on the landscape that produces them.

 

The Great Energy Challenge is an important three-year National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation. National Geographic has assembled some of the world’s foremost researchers and scientists to help tackle the challenge. Led by Thomas Lovejoy, a National Geographic conservation fellow and renowned biologist, the team of advisers will work together to identify and provide support for projects focused on innovative energy solutions.