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Chris Clack explains how massive investment in new transmission will solve problems

 by Allen Best

Chris Clack made a key point in a presentation sponsored by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science called “The Future of Energy: Transmission.”

If renewables locally can be understood as variable and intermittent, that is not at all the case on a regional or larger scale.

“The global heat engine runs constantly, driving wind and cloud patterns. The process is very well understood,” he said, describing solar irradiance and the distance between the Earth and the sun.

“Therefore, variability is a local effect.”

If you’re reading Big Pivots, you likely understand where this is going. The background question is how can Colorado, New Mexico and other states achieve their dramatic economy-wide decarbonization goals?

Electricity is the key. It will be used to replace fossil fuels in transportation, home and hot water heating and, over time, perhaps other sectors of the economy, too. Colorado has a goal of 90% carbon reduction by 2050. That’s economy-wide.

So how do we reinvent the electrical grid to achieve those goals?

This is from the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com

Clack, the principal at Boulder-based Vibrant Clean Energy, described the need to reinvent the grid. The distribution grid was originally built simply to absorb power from centralized power plants. It worked. “It’s very complicated, but without this system, we would not have the kind of society we have in the United States or elsewhere,” he said.

Now, that system has to be reinvented. “We would like it to happen in 20 years, but realistically it will be 35 years,” he said.

Long-distance transmission will be a big piece of that. “It makes a lot of things easier,” Clack explained. It allows the grid to be decarbonized, thus allowing the decarbonization of buildings and transportation. Even as energy efficiency improves, this will result in need for more electricity, not less. All these things can be achieved with improved long-distance transmission. The additional benefit is that it will reduce the need to curtail renewables, such as when there is too much supply, and storage can actually be increased.

None of this is particularly a new insight, and Clack pointed to several among the many studies of recent years, including an MIT study that had been issued the day before in the journal called Joule.

Vibrant Clean Energy also expects to issue another study out in January, called Zero by Fifty, or ZBF. Clack—we could call him Dr. Clack, as of course, he has a doctorate—pointed to the need for high-voltage direct-current lines. All this will require considerable investment. That investment will be repaid by 2035 to 2040.

Clack flipped that same coin: Not building a high-voltage direct current grid adds $1 trillion in energy costs to the nation’s economy by 2050.

With this, Clack showed slides of the added renewables his company’s study envisions. He actually sees need for less additional renewable generation with improved transmission. But the increase he and his team project is still striking. See the comparison in these two slides at right.

In the Q&A, Clack was asked about the idea of running transmission underground, along railroad lines, perhaps, similar to fiber-optic lines in the 1990s and beyond. The same idea was discussed at a recent information meeting about transmission put together by John Gavan at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

There were a few concerns about security, he said but in general “it could work.”

What about the inevitable inter-state need for transmission and the lack of coherent federal policy?

There needs to be a blueprint and also a federal backstop for this new infrastructure, he said, as there was with the federal highway system.

Allen Best
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