The Math Says Yes
A supercomputer has done the math and it can be done! One of the largest power systems in the world can integrate over 30% wind and solar power into its systems. In the end, this means that a vast portion of the United States could be getting a third of its power supply from renewable sources.
Oh, and it could do it within 10 years.
The Eastern Interconnection (EI), which provides and regulates the distribution of energy in the Eastern US, has been running constantly for over a hundred years. Ultimately, the EI was designed to run coal, nuclear, natural gas, and hydro power by “dispatching” them as they are needed. But for years, experts have been wondering if they can add more renewable sources to the EI’s systems—especially at a time when wind and solar energy are also proving their worth (despite their supposed unreliability).
But just as the EI is powerful, it’s also a very complex machine: it has to balance 5,600 generators, 50,000 nodes, and 60,000 transmission lines every five minutes to ensure that it adequately serves its 240 million consumers. It would take millions of calculations to precisely—and with absolute certainty—declare that adding more to its renewable energy source is possible. This is the main reason why until now, all we’ve had we’re educated guesses.
Fortunately, we have supercomputers for these calculations now. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) put the liquid-cooled Peregrine supercomputer to the task. The Peregrine supercomputer, unveiled by energy secretary Ernest Moniz in 2013, can perform “more than a quadrillion calculations per second as part of the world's most energy-efficient HPC data center.”
Ultimately, Peregrine’s simulations show that the Eastern Interconnection can operate at a five-minute level with 30% wind and solar power, and that the integration can be done quickly. So while experts had assumed for a long time that this is possible, we now have the calculations to back it up and can proceed with more confidence.
"Peregrine provides much-needed computational capability to model complex systems such as the grid, to allow us to ask 'what if' questions, and to optimize how these systems are designed and deployed with much higher confidence in their efficiency and robustness," NREL Computational Science Center director Steve Hammond said.
While this study redefines the possibilities for renewable energy, the NREL says political, institutional, and social aspects are still critical to achieving this potential. But at least we know now by technicality, it can be done.