Get A Local Clean Energy Future By Trading In The 20th Century Electric Grid

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to bring you interesting cleantech articles, is proud to repost this column from partner Institute For Local Self Reliance. Author credit goes to John Farrell.

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.

institute for local self-reliance, distributed power

image via Shutterstock

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.

The Institute’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.

1 Comment

  • Reply March 11, 2012

    Ruth Cassandra Cooper

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the topic ever!  The situation in Canada, especially coming to bear in Ontario, is very similar to the one in the US. 
    In Ontario, the Ontario Power Authority’s (OPAs) Feed-in Tariff program has incentivised distributed generation ranging from residential scale through to utility scale.  Unfortunately, capacity constraints and the need for infrastructure upgrades are being presented as obstacles to further development.  One wonders how much of this is really necessary given that we are supposedly trading in dirty generation for clean vs. increasing generation?
    Having turned electrons into a commodity, I propose that the ‘electron traders’ are using our ignorance to tie ‘trade channel expansion & upgrade’ costs to distributed, renewables-based generation development.
    I advocate energy self-sufficiency and would really like to see whole communities go off-grid, refusing to pay for obsolete, centralized infrastructure expansion.  In Ontario, the sole shareholder of Local Distribution Companies (LDCs) is typically the municipality.  I propose that municipalities be allowed to focus on upgrades required to support the development of community-based and owned, distributed, renewables-based generation projects.
    Renewables-based, distributed generation, which is secure, reliable, and sustainable is not just an opportunity for key players to get rich, fast – as one might think looking at the “Solar Rush” currently underway in Ontario.  It’s a crucial part of an undertaking which will ensure the sustainability of our way of life on this planet.

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