Clean Energy Doesn’t Require A Trade-Off, But A Trade-In Of Our Obsolete Electric Grid

We need a 21st century electricity system to enable local clean energy

by John Farrell, reposted from Energy Self-Reliant States

In a New York Times SundayReview piece last week – Drawing the Line at Power LinesElisabeth Rosenthal suggested that our desire for clean energy will require significant tradeoffs:

There are pipelines, trains, trucks and high-voltage transmission lines. None of them are pretty, and all have environmental drawbacks. But if you want to drive your cars, heat your homes and watch TV, you will have to choose among these unpalatable options…

Perhaps the answer is simply that in an increasingly crowded powered-on world, we’re all going to have to accept that Governor Cuomo’s so-called energy highway is likely to traverse our backyard.

I disagree.

The future of American electricity policy is not about tradeoffs, but rather a chance to trade-in an obsolete, centralized paradigm for a local, clean energy future.  Utilities would have us believe that new high-voltage transmission lines are necessary to get more wind and solar power.  But the truth is that the American electricity industry refuses to embrace the fundamentally different nature of renewable energy: its ubiquity means that Americans can produce energy near where they use it, in an economically competitive manner, and at a community scale.

The 20th century electricity system was centrally controlled and centrally-owned, a necessary evil when coal, gas, and nuclear power plants had significant economies of scale and required enormous capital investments.  The supply lines for these power plants were equally large, connecting far-off mines, oil and gas fields via rail and pipeline to these remote power plants, and big transmission lines in turn carried the electricity from these power plants to big urban centers.

An electricity system primarily powered by wind and solar is fundamentally different.  Turbines and panels are always right at the fuel source, whether on a rural farm or an urban rooftop.   And because their scale is substantially more amenable to community ownership, renewable energy can be built near to and provide economic benefits to the communities it powers.

The fundamental shift means Americans should trade-in an obsolete model of centralized energy generation for one that matches and builds support for the local energy opportunity.

Local ownership and its economic benefits should play a significant role.  For example, researchers in Germany recently surveyed local support for expanding wind energy production, comparing two towns with nearby wind farms.  When the local turbines were absentee-owned, 60 percent of residents were opposed to more local wind power.  Opposition dropped by 45 percentage points when the wind farm was locally owned.  It’s no different from the fight over the Badger-Coulee transmission line in Western Wisconsin, where locals have raised hell knowing that they will be asked to pay as much as $5 billion for new transmission lines that will earn utilities an 11% (or greater) return with questionable local economic benefit.

Locally owned wind power is in short supply, however, because federal and state energy policy make it extremely difficult.  Community ownership could be best achieved through cooperatives, schools, or cities, but federal wind incentives are for taxable entities, not these rooted community organizations.  Furthermore, federal tax credits require wind power project participants to have “passive income” from investments, ruling out the vast majority of Americans.  When community wind projects succeed, like the South Dakota Wind Partners, organizers admit that repeated the success is unlikely in light of the legal and financial complexities.

Community-scaled wind and solar projects also struggle against an electricity system stacked against small-scale or “distributed” generation.  A recent study in Minnesota, for example, suggested that the state could meet its entire 25% by 2025 renewable energy standard with distributed renewable energy projects connected to existing electric grid infrastructure.  Incumbent utilities have focused on transmission instead, likely because new power lines (and not maximizing existing infrastructure) earns them a statutory 11-13% rate of return.

This myopic focus on big infrastructure may prove doubly expensive as the cost of solar power falls rapidly.  Within 10 years, one-third of Americans could install solar on their own rooftop and get electricity for less than their utility charges, without any additional power lines.  But under the current electricity policy, these same Americans will likely be paying a few dollars each month for new utility-conceived high-voltage transmission lines even as they increasingly produce their own local, clean energy.

The future of American energy policy is not a tradeoff between new clean energy and new transmission.  Rather, it’s an opportunity to trade-in an obsolete, centralized model of development for the alternative – a democratized energy system where Americans can be producers and owners of their energy future.

John Farrell is an Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) senior researcher specializing in energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. This piece was originally published at the Energy Self Reliant States blog.

12 Responses to Clean Energy Doesn’t Require A Trade-Off, But A Trade-In Of Our Obsolete Electric Grid

  1. Mark says:

    New suburban freeways.

    What does this article have in common with new suburban freeways? Simple, they are both marketed with the notion that they will cure the bottleneck and eliminate various tradeoffs. What we actually see is “Build it and they will come”, sometimes expressed as “We love it (to death)”.

    Of course I agree we need a new grid. It’s tied at the top of my personal list of smartest possible moves. But believing it will eliminate ever having to confront tradeoffs, over the longterm…. that is seriously naive.

    Global warming, as bad a problem as it is, is just a symptom of non-stop never-ending growth. A new grid ain’t gonna reduce the demand for growth one iota…. but I do agree we should build it with the same gusto we used when we tooled up after Pearl Harbor.

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Mr. Farrell is correct in some things (solar panels on rooftops drive that power generation right to the user) and I think keeping energy production as close to the user as possible is a good general rule, but with regards to the US:

    The really big solar resources are in the Southwest Desert where few live.

    The really big wind resources are along the east edge of the Rocky Mountains spanning the nation, where few live, again.

    Of course taking advantage of these resources would require infrastructure to route that power to the population centers and that is not an outrageous thing to do. JMHO

  3. Davos says:

    When the local turbines were absentee-owned, 60 percent of residents were opposed to more local wind power. Opposition dropped by 45 percentage points when the wind farm was locally owned.

    How relevant do you think this is in reality when it comes to actual deployment– especially if you’re desiring it on such a local scale that everyone has to deal with it? Even if the number of people opposed to an installment is 5%, they still get to successfully prevent/delay and raise costs of these deployments, stunting or even eliminating many advantages of scale. Some element of due-process must be trimmed back or eliminated to get around this real-world issue. The fact that most of the people at the forefront of these sorts of issues consider themselves environmentalists, that’s another matter altogether.

    Sometimes it’s easier to pass muster when concentrating energy infrastructure in a large footprint, and then widening the region in which voters must approve/etc. In that way, if it’s not solely up to the 200 people that will be directly affected by it, it might have a better shot. If some folks have already made peace with a large energy installation near them, they’re more likely to be passive about a replacement. You’re talking about perhaps millions of people having to deal with many sites, all on a local scale.

    After all, if you check out who’s owning these plots of land on which these farms are deployed (eg, in the UK)… they are just about all (newly) 1%-er types.

  4. John,
    There ARE tradeoffs involved in building new infrastructure. Even if we assume that all energy can produced locally, which I don’t think is the case, there will need to be build-out of electric railways as well as, probably, electrified rights of way for light-rail and trolley buses within cities to use that energy to transport people and goods. These will create conflicts between people and some will like the “old way” of roads, pipelines, and internal combustion engines. Some people’s property will be differentially affected by these changes and this will provoke disputes and claims for compensation, some of which will be justified.

    More realistically, as other commenters have pointed out, large scale renewable energy in some areas makes sense even though there is controversy about transmission lines. If these facilities can shut down coal and natural gas plants a decade or two sooner than your preferred all-local solution, they are worth it.

    You’re also insulting people’s intelligence by telling them that there are no trade-offs involved. The trick is to find those solutions that have less trade-offs while avoiding the huge “trade-off” of a climate in which people and co-evolved species cannot thrive.

    Overall, using clean energy as an “entering wedge” for an entire “small is beautiful” political and social philosophy is, in my opinion, a mistake. We probably want to localize those things that people want to and can afford to localize while inter-networking those things that make our lives enjoyable, and yes, more sustainable.

  5. jim says:

    Utter nonsense of the worst sort. Committing us to the highest cost renewable energy — that from rooftops and small turbines — is a sure-fire way to minimize the total fraction of renewable MWh delivered; period. If you care about actually replacing any fraction of total MWh you need strong long-distance transmission to where the resources are. The US has built many thousands of miles of gas pipelines during a period where only a few hundred miles of transmission lines have been built.

    This is a deeply irresponsible piece.

  6. ken says:

    Unfortunately, Jim is seriously deluded.

    Try using some facts in your argument.
    Fact: rooftop PV is rapidly approaching grid parity and will continue to decrease and could be cheaper than coal wholesale price by 2020.

    Fact: In your country, and mine, the netwrok costs form the bulk of retail prices.

    I think you seriouusly need to look at the economy of scale issues here.

    In the existing network, because it has grown beyond its optimum, the diseconomies of scale in distribution outweigh the economies of scale in generation.

    The key though is the spectacular ramp up of production volumes for PV in China, and the large economies of scale in manufacturing, supply and instalation driving the cost down.

    Large scale solar will only make sense for providing storage as the modularity of PV limits the economies of scale in generation.

  7. Kattmanduu says:

    The old massive grid was needed to provide large amounts of power to sites like HAARP the old over the horizon radar systems, to large industry/factories and to centralize control of the power in a few hands. It’s not needed today. Localized systems are better. They can have multiple generation sources such as wind, solar, biomass, sewer and natural gas, and other alternative ways of making power all working together to make power for local use. Vertical axis wind turbines are the best. All of them are very environmentally and economically friendly. All of the NAY sayers are owned and operated by these big energy corporations in one way or another.
    We don’t just need a real national energy policy. We need to nationalize all of our nations natural resources that are required for our national defense. Not allowing them to be harvested for export or shear profit for the few. We don’t need more coal mines oil wells and pipelines we need to stop exporting our resources and be most frugal with those that we do import.
    Having a centralized power grid is dangerous to our nation too. It can be attacked or used as a weapon against us and most of our country blacked out in less than an hour. By the way, isn’t centralization of anything a “socialist” thing to do, just like the centralized USSR was and China is today. We have to have centralized health care and education too. You want a smaller government so you have to have a smaller power grid too. The politics of power.

  8. tim bastable says:

    Jim hits the nail on the head with his comment – The notion we can produce a significant part of our energy needs locally and at source is deeply flawed – Sasparilla rightly points out that the best renewable resources are often remote from population centres.

    It’s also true that a well developed grid is an essential tool in managing intermittentcy.

    In the UK a lot of confusionists are using the intermittency issue to argue that wind turbines could be carbon positive – and that back-up will increase costs by as much as 50% over the current estimates – Their arguments are in truth weak – but a central plank of a renewable strategy that doesn’t involve wholesale fossil fuel backup is having long distance interconnector grids.

    Without the ability to both link areas of demand to areas of supply and to spread supply over diverse demand areas (peak demand in the south is summer time – peak demand in north is winter time etc) the backup cost argument has far more strength.

    Far from being redundant in a renewables scenario, a good modern grid is an essential prerequisite to successfully integrating them into the power mix.

  9. Tom Wallace says:

    Thirty years ago I put PV panels on my roof as I was off the grid. Doing so always left me feeling “clean,” and this was long before the current concern about the environment and its resources.

    A friend of mine recently “de-vested” from the stock market and chose to invest in “clean energy,” using the proceeds from the “de-investment” sale to cover his roof with PV panels and hot water solar collectors.

    He is making enough electricity to cover nearly all of his needs and with a few more panels and a wind generator he would be in the electrical generating business selling the unused surplus through the local low voltage grid back to Oakdale Electric thereby making these high voltage transmission lines unnecessary.


    How about a “GOOD ON YOU” dear reader. You will sleep better at night and you and your children will breathe cleaner air if you too do this. No question about it.

  10. I am the subject of the last posted blog. My wife and I are trying to live as self supporting as we can. If all communities, urban and rural, did so we could largely divorce ourselves from the tyranny of big corporations and big banks. We have the resources and talent to do this, if we’re courageous enough to look at our own resources for living sustainably and healthfully.

  11. Our electricity future won’t be bad. And we shouldn’t complain about that…what is more important is the situation with oil