Geophysical constraints on the reliability of solar and wind power in the United States†
We analyze 36 years of global, hourly weather data (1980–2015) to quantify the covariability of solar and wind resources as a function of time and location, over multi-decadal time scales and up to continental length scales. Assuming minimal excess generation, lossless transmission, and no other generation sources, the analysis indicates that wind-heavy or solar-heavy U.S.-scale power generation portfolios could in principle provide ∼80% of recent total annual U.S. electricity demand. However, to reliably meet 100% of total annual electricity demand, seasonal cycles and unpredictable weather events require several weeks’ worth of energy storage and/or the installation of much more capacity of solar and wind power than is routinely necessary to meet peak demand. To obtain ∼80% reliability, solar-heavy wind/solar generation mixes require sufficient energy storage to overcome the daily solar cycle, whereas wind-heavy wind/solar generation mixes require continental-scale transmission to exploit the geographic diversity of wind. Policy and planning aimed at providing a reliable electricity supply must therefore rigorously consider constraints associated with the geophysical variability of the solar and wind resource—even over continental scales.