ENERGY SECURITYYou've Heard of Water Droughts. Could “Energy” Droughts Be Next?

By Kim Martineau

Published 12 April 2022

In a new modeling study, researchers show how widely wind and solar potential vary by season and year, suggesting that backup energy sources may be needed as the world shifts to renewables to bring carbon emissions to zero.

Renewable energy prices have fallen by more than 70 percent in the last decade, driving more Americans to abandon fossil fuels for greener, less-polluting energy sources. But as wind and solar power continue to make inroads, grid operators may have to plan for large swings in availability.

The warning comes from Upmanu Lall, a professor at Columbia Engineering and the Columbia Climate School who has recently turned his sights from sustainable water use to sustainable renewables in the push toward net-zero carbon emissions.

Designers of renewable energy systems will need to pay attention to changing wind and solar patterns over weeks, months, and years, the way water managers do,” he said. “You won’t be able to manage variability like this with batteries. You’ll need more capacity.”

In a new modeling study in the journal Patterns, Lall and Columbia PhD student Yash Amonkar, show that solar and wind potential vary widely over days and weeks, not to mention months to years. They focused on Texas, which leads the country in generating electricity from wind power and is the fifth-largest solar producer. Texas also boasts a self-contained grid that’s as big as many countries’, said Lall, making it an ideal laboratory for charting the promise and peril of renewable energy systems.

Drawing on 70 years of historic wind and solar-power data, the researchers built an AI model to predict the probability of a network-scale “drought,” when daily production of renewables fell below a target threshold. Under a threshold set at the 30th percentile, when roughly a third of all days are low-production days, the researchers found that Texas could face a daily energy drought for up to four months straight.

Batteries would be unable to compensate for a drought of this length, said Lall, and if the system relied on solar energy alone, the drought could be expected to last twice as long—for eight months. “These findings suggest that energy planners will have to consider alternate ways of storing or generating electricity, or dramatically increasing the capacity of their renewable systems,” he said. 

Anticipating Future ‘Energy’ Droughts—in Texas, and Across the Continental United States
The research began six years ago, when Lall and a former graduate student, David Farnham, examined wind and solar variability at eight U.S. airports, where weather records tend to be longer and more detailed. They wanted to see how much variation could be expected under a hypothetical 100% renewable-energy grid.