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Wind and sun create puzzle for power grid

Populations continue to swell. Cheap energy begins to fade. And rising oceans swallow urban lands.

Such problems demand solutions to the current path of energy, according to scientists, business leaders and politicians who gathered at a recent public forum at UNC-Chapel Hill’s William and Ida Friday Center.

But it’s still unclear what alternatives are viable, particularly with unproven technologies that require massive investments in an already strained economy.

“We are dealing with some relatively long-term issues, but they are becoming more pressing as time passes,” said Thomas Meyer, director of UNC-CH’s Solar Energy Research Center, which hosted this month’s forum.

In the relatively short term, Meyer and others said, we could turn to alternatives such as clean coal and nuclear energy. But the long-term plan should focus on a systematic transition that turns the 6 percent of renewable energy that we use – including wind, solar, and biomass – into our main power source.

“We have to do that before an economic dislocation,” Meyer said.

That goal will demand a combination of research in science and technology, economic planning and public policy that supports energy efficiency.

Energy storage presents a major obstacle to that end.

“Basically, energy storage is needed for the grid of the future,” said John Boyes, who manages the U.S. Department of Energy funded Energy Storage Systems Program at New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratories, which develops utility scale electricity storage systems.

Currently, we depend on the “ultimate just-in-time” system, Boyes said. Plants are turned on to meet the peak afternoon demands, and powered down as energy consumption falls in the evening.

While solar and wind energy can, over a period of time, create enough average energy to meet the country’s demand, their fluctuating intensity on a daily basis creates shortfalls and surges that need to be mitigated, Boyes said.

Technologies such as lithium ion batteries do have a place in energy storage, but they won’t meet the larger need, he said. Boyes’ program has identified up to 20 applications for utility-scale energy storage for uses such as reducing carbon emissions and improving operating efficiency.