One of the barriers to bringing renewable energy online is its unreliability. The fact that wind and solar in particular are intermittent can reek havoc on electrical demand. Peak load, the electrical consumption during the highest demand times, requires base load power: a steady, reliable source of electricity. Because electricity cannot be stored at a reasonable cost, it has to be constantly generated. Electricity is a secondary power source, it has to be generated from some other process (burning coal, natural gas, nuclear fission). Without large scale storage options, enough electricity has to be generated to exceed demand otherwise brownouts or blackouts occur.
Ostensibly prices are highest during peak hours as demand is greatest. Some utilities offer a two tiered rate plan where electricity is cheaper at night and on the weekend, kind of like certain cell phone plans. While conservation remains the cheapest and easiest (or so it would seem) option, reducing electrical consumption has proven difficult on a large scale. Recent news about six Kansas cities and their ability to cut power by 5% provides a modicum of hope.
As the dishwasher and washing machine (both Energy Star rated appliances, yet each producing a bit of noise) run at night in my apartment, I wonder if it’s possible to reduce peak consumption on a large scale. Offices, schools, retail, and commercial buildings have a role to play. Will the U.S. get to the point where the thermostat is set at 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit) during the summer like the Japanese? Doubtful, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to reduce our peak consumption and save some money along the way.
If we find a way to store renewable electricity (like molten sodium batteries), where does that leave us? That may provide base power to solve one problem, but if electricity from renewable sources is more expensive will it matter to consumers (even if it’s cleaner)? Can we reduce consumption and bring clean energy online? Will the cost savings from the former pay for the latter? While questions remain, clean, domestically produced energy is the best option going forward.