How Does Weather Affect Renewable Energy?
As discussions about climate change increasingly take center stage, one question seems to stick in everyone’s minds: How reliable is renewable energy?
Renewable energy sources like sunlight, wind speed, and water seem like the obvious candidates to replace fossil fuels, which are currently the largest single source of carbon emissions. But what happens to reliability as our daily weather trends change?
When the Weather Fails to Show Up
Weather that doesn’t exist doesn’t generate energy. You need sunlight for solar, water for hydro, and wind for…well, wind.
Here in Michigan, consistent sunlight isn’t a guarantee, especially during our frequently overcast winter days. Even when it’s partly cloudy, solar panels can have a greatly diminished output if the clouds cast a shadow.
Wind can be similarly spotty. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Favorable sites [for turbines] include the tops of smooth, rounded hills; open plains and water; and mountain gaps that funnel and intensify wind.” Michigan has some of this, but in general, our state isn’t optimal for windy conditions.
And then there’s hydro. While our state is blessed with an abundant supply of fresh water, this doesn’t guarantee easy energy. Changing precipitation and temperatures can pose problems for water availability.
When There’s Too Much Weather
How about storms and other extreme weather events? Solar might suffer, but lots of wind and precipitation mean better outlooks for wind and hydro, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Storms can certainly increase output for certain renewables – at least to a point. But when the equipment tries to take on too much energy at once, it can get overwhelmed and be forced to shut down. Flooding and extreme wind speeds can be a serious threat to hydro and wind power.
And of course, the equipment itself is susceptible to weather damage. Lightning strikes, hail, and other hazards are just as dangerous to renewable energy structures as they are to any other.
All Is Not Lost
Does this mean renewable energy is a dead end? No!
Many renewable energy technologies are still in their infancy. Solutions like battery energy storage, which captures energy from renewables to deploy later, are still being developed and can help us use renewables more effectively in the future. As they continue to improve, and as new research is conducted, renewables will become an even more attractive option.
We aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket, either. Solar, wind, hydro, and other renewables can work together to provide the energy we need. On days where one is reduced, another might be more productive.
Finally, it’s important to remember that fossil fuels come with their own set of uncertainties, not least of which is their limited availability. We can’t rely on them indefinitely – even when the alternatives still have growing pains.