Renewable Energy

Renewables: How a data tweak could rock tomorrow’s grid

The Department of Energy last month embraced a change in how it calculates the value of renewable energy, such as wind power, on the electric grid. Photo by OLC Fiber, courtesy of Flickr.

The Department of Energy last month embraced a change in how it calculates the value of renewable energy, such as wind power, on the electric grid. Photo by OLC Fiber, courtesy of Flickr.

WASHINGTON, DC — “In October, the Department of Energy made a little change to how it values renewable energy on the electric grid. It immediately resolved a tussle between the electric grid and the natural gas grid over efficiency standards, with the electric utilities scoring a strategic win.

But that’s just the start of its consequences.

Decades from now, if renewable energy like wind and solar keeps up its rapid growth, it could make electricity more appealing than gas as a means to curb carbon emissions and boost the electrification of all kinds of appliances. It could make the economic case for renewable energy stronger, while also boosting technologies and techniques that lower emissions, like energy storage and efficiency.

And it could prompt a fundamental rethinking of the United States’ energy math, in ways that could have the country legitimately claim a big rise in energy productivity and an even more dramatic drop in energy use.

At issue is a little-known metric — the source-to-site ratio — that calculates how much energy goes into making electricity. The ratio compares the amount of energy from a power plant (the source) to the electricity actually received at a building (the site). Four decades ago, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, energy planners made a sweeping assumption about the source-to-site ratio for renewable energy, like hydro, wind and solar power.

Their curious answer: exactly as much as an average power plant running on fossil fuels.

…The new site-to-source ratio, called captured energy, in essence puts renewable energy plants on a different footing than fossil fuel plants. It reports the amount of electricity that a renewable energy plant transmits, rather than the energy it takes to make that electricity. When dispensing of the assumption that a renewable energy plant burns fuel like a fossil fuel one, renewable energy becomes nearly three times as efficient.”

— David Ferris, Environment & Energy Publishing

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