Renewable and Low-Carbon Electric Power and Grid Integration

Researchers led by Project Chair Michael McELROY, LU Xi (Tsinghua School of Environment, formerly China Project), and postdoctoral fellow CHEN Xinyu have explored the status and prospects for renewable electric power in China, including the challenges of grid integration.

From assessing wind power potentials using meteorological data and the geophysical constraints, to exploring diverse energy storage and other strategies to ease grid integration of variable power sources, this research has deepened understanding of the role renewable energy can play in reducing emissions of air pollutants and carbon dioxide in China.


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The Project developed a new assessment of wind power potentials in China, expressed as capacity factors of typical 1.5 MW wind turbines, screening out areas with unsuitable land uses and topography. The study appeared as the cover article of Science on September 11, 2009 (McElroy et al. 2009). This research is led by Project Chair Michael McElroy and research associate LU Xi. It takes advantage of NASA global assimilated meteorological datasets that have been validated by hundreds of studies of atmospheric chemistry and transport, and that drive the China Project's atmospheric model described here. A discussion of the study's implications appeared in MIT's Technology Review. It was also reported by China Daily,Associated PressReutersAgence France-PresseBloombergGuardianCBC,ClimateWireDiscoveryPublic Radio International, and other sources (some requiring a subscription). 

A research article applying the methodology in a global wind assessment appeared inProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Lu, McElroy, and Kiviluoma 2009), covered by Time MagazineThe Boston GlobeABC NewsThe TelegraphNew Scientist, and National Public Radio. An introduction to this research, with application to the U.S., appeared in Harvard Magazine.

The team continued to exploit meteorological databases to develop new methodological approaches to the challenges of integrating large-scale wind power into energy systems of both China and the U.S. Lu, McElroy, and Sluzas (2011b) examines the costs and CO2benefits of wind power deployment in the Texas electric power system. Lu et al. (2011a) evaluates the effect of the U.S. Production Tax Credit policy on profitability of wind power in the U.S., differentiated by geography. 

The researchers have also explored the shift to natural gas-fired power generation in the U.S. due to the shale gas revolution, investigating the effects of reduced gas prices on emissions of CO2 and conventional air pollutants in the U.S. in Lu et al. (2012a) and Lu et al. (2012b). This work laid groundwork for a study by Guo et al. (submitted, 2016) on prospects for shale gas development in China, focusing on constraints of water resources. 

The team has also applied insights from research on the U.S. power system in new research on China, joining with experts on China's electric grid led by KANG Chongqing of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Tsinghua University. Lu and McElroy led a study assessing the benefits of interconnecting offshore wind power deployments off the coast of China (Lu et al. 2013), and another study of the effects of offshore wind generation on coal use and carbon emissions (Lu et al. 2014). With visiting scholar CHEN Xinyu of Tsinghua, they assessed the prospects for using electrified space heating in Beijing as a form of energy storage, easing grid integration of renewable power and reducing carbon emissions and air pollution (Chen et al. 2014). Working with visiting scholar ZHANG Ning of Tsinghua, the team has also researched the benefits of coupling wind power generation with pumped hydro storage in Inner Mongolia (Zhang et al. in press, 2016). 

As both former Ph.D. student and postdoc, HUANG Junling (now with Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute) had co-led with McElroy investigations of fundamental geophysical constraints and opportunities for wind power development in the U.S., China, and the world (Huang et al. 2014), including under climate change (Huang and McElroy 2014Huang and McElroy 2015aHuang and McElroy 2015b). 

More recently, Lu, now a professor at the School of Environment of Tsinghua University, has led with McElroy a Project study comparing causes of wind curtailment in the U.S. and China (Lu et al. submitted, 2016). Chen, graduated from Tsinghua and now returned to the China Project as a postdoc, is helping to take this research stream in new directions, including the potential role of electrified transportation fleets on grid integration of renewable power in China (Chen et al. submitted, 2016).

Acknowledgment: Some of the material summarized here is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. ATM-1019134 or ATM-0635548 (indicated by acknowledgments in the papers themselves). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).


Related Publications

Changyi Liu, Yang Wang, and Rong Zhu. In Press. “Assessment of the economic potential of China's onshore wind electricity.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Publisher's Version Abstract

The assessment of the economic potential of wind electricity is of critical importance for wind power development in China. Based on the wind resource data between 1995 and 2014 and geological assumptions, this paper calculates economic potential of China’s onshore wind electricity. Furthermore, it builds an econometric model to update the net-present-value model, based on a survey sample of various wind farms. Results show that the economic potential of China’s onshore wind electricity is 8.13 PWh per year with a feed-in-tariff price at 0.60 yuan (about 9.6 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour.

Michael B. McElroy and Xinyu Chen. 2017. “Wind and solar power in the United States: Status and prospects.” CSEE Journal of Power and Energy Systems, 1, 3. Abstract


The United States has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% by 2025 and by 83% by 2050 relative to 2005. Meeting these objectives will require major investments in renewable energy options, particularly wind and solar. These investments are promoted at the federal level by a variety of tax credits, and at the state level by requirements for utilities to include specific fractions of renewable energy in their portfolios (Renewable Portfolio Standards) and by opportunities for rooftop PV systems to transfer excess power to utilities through net metering, allowing meters to operate in reverse. The paper discusses the current status of these incentives.


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Project Economist Mun HO and Executive Director Chris NIELSEN have an op-ed in Fortune (and in Chinese at Fortune China)on the underappreciated reasons China's red alert air pollution episodes are proving so difficult to control. Factors range from atmospheric chemistry and meteorology to economics and politics.

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October 6, 2016

Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, has long helped explain the complexities of climate to students, scholars, and government leaders. His most recent book, “Energy and Climate: Vision for the Future,” published in August by Oxford University Press, is a continuation of that work. He discussed the book in a recent interview with the Gazette.

Lu et al. Wind Power Study on the Cover of Nature Energy

Lu et al. Wind Power Study on the Cover of Nature Energy

June 4, 2016

A China Project study led by Prof. LU Xi (now at Tsinghua U.) and Project Chair Prof. Michael McELROY, comparing the challenges of wind power development in China and the U.S., is the cover article of Nature Energy. The paper decomposes factors contributing to wind power underperformance, including curtailment, differences in turbine quality, and delayed grid connection.