One of the key arguments against alternative and (often) renewable energy sources is whether they can matter economically: Whether they can produce enough power to provide for a major part of a region's needs, and whether they can be produced at low enough cost to provide a financially practical alternative.
In the last few years the answer to those questions has gone from being a big quetion mark to a generally qualified 'yes.' Wind turbine power production has become large-scale in the Northwest (and a number of other places too), and solar is gaining, and the results are coming in: In the area of cost, wind is competitive with more traditional electricity sources, and the costs of solar are dropping enough that they will be competitive in the near future. The economic change in these power sources is underlined by the rapidly growing number of deals large power companies in the region have been making with many of those producers.
One of the big remaining questions, however, has been one of reliability: Whether, given changes in sunlight and weather, wind and solar power production is consistent enough for a region to depend upon.
A new study by Oregon State University (and others), and published in The Electricity Journal, is showing that it can, at least if done in the right way. A hybrid way.
An OSU report explains: "For instance, the wind often blows more strongly at night in some regions, Kelly said, and solar technology can only produce energy during the day. By making more sophisticated use of that basic concept in a connected grid, and pairing it with more advanced forms of energy storage, the door could be opened for a much wider use of renewable energy systems, scientists say."
This is becoming more practical for another reason: "Advanced energy storage could be another huge key to making renewable energy more functional, and one example is just being developed in several cooperating states in the West. Electricity is being produced by efficient wind farms in Wyoming; transmitted to Utah where it’s being stored via compressed air in certain rock formations; and ultimately used to help power Los Angeles."
Put a close-monitored system of wind, hydro and solar power together (and maybe, on the coast, tidal as well?), and the impact on the regional power economy could be enormous. Over time, it could even be cost-cutting, and made more reliable than what we have right now.
The OSU report concluded, "The long-term goal, the report concluded, is to identify technologies that can work in a hybrid system that offers consistency, dependability and doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. With careful matching of systems, improved transmission abilities and some new technological advances, that goal may be closer than realized."
A generation from now, the power picture in the Northwest – and beyond – may look a lot different than it traditionally has.