More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Battle for the Future of Energy

Countries face generational choices on how to supply energy to homes, businesses and electric vehicles. It is a decision that will shape the process of climate change and determine how the United States will deal with wildfires, heat waves and other extreme weather events. To global warming.

On the one hand, large utilities and President Biden want to build thousands of miles of electricity to move the electricity generated by distant wind turbines and solar farms to cities and suburbs. Meanwhile, some environmental groups and community groups are driving increased investment in rooftop solar panels, batteries and local wind turbines.

There is a fierce policy struggle between Washington and the state capital about the choices lawmakers, energy companies and individuals will make in the coming years, which can be trapped in decades-long energy systems. The gap between those who need more power lines and those who want a more decentralized energy system has disrupted the renewable energy industry and the environmental movement. And it has created a convenient partnership between fossil fuel companies and local groups fighting power lines.

At stake is how quickly a country can move to cleaner energy and how much electricity will go up.

Biden secured $ 73 billion for thousands of miles of new power lines in an infrastructure proposal agreed by him and the senators of both parties in June. The deal involves the establishment of a grid development agency to speed up transmission line approval.

Most energy experts agree that the United States must improve its dilapidated power grid, especially after millions of Texas people have been frozen for days this winter, when the state’s power system has declined. ..

Amy Myers Jaffe, Managing Director of the Institute for Climate Policy at Tufts University, said:

With options supported by Biden and some large energy companies, coal and gas power plants have been replaced by large wind and solar power plants hundreds of miles from the city, and many new You will need a power line. Such integration gives the utility and Wall Street more control over the grid.

In an interview, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, “We need to make a big national plan to ensure that electricity is delivered from where it is generated to where it is needed.”

However, many of Biden’s liberal allies argue that solar panels, batteries and other energy sources in the region need to be emphasized because they are more elastic and can be built faster.

Howard Lerner, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, a Chicago-based non-profit organization, said: “Solar energy and storage are transforming the electrical sector, just as wireless services were in the telecommunications sector.”

Perhaps there will be a mix of solutions that include more power lines and rooftop solar panels. What combination will emerge depends on the transactions made in Parliament, but also on the skirmishes that take place across the country.

Granholm said the government supports rooftop solar grids and microgrids. This is a system that allows towns and neighbors to generate and use their own electricity. Biden, for example, proposed a federal investment tax credit for local energy storage projects. But she added that the decentralized approach is not sufficient to meet the president’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by 2035.

Help came from a rare source as millions of California homes darkened during the heat wave of last summer: batteries installed in homes, businesses and city buildings.

These batteries operated up to 6% of the grid’s power supply during a crisis and helped supplement idle natural gas and nuclear power plants. Rooftop solar panels generated an additional 4 percent of the state’s electricity.

The result — a homeowner and a company that supports the grid — wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. For over a century, electricity has been one-way. It’s from the power plant to the people.

California has shown that homes and businesses do not have to be passive consumers. They can be mini power plants and can benefit from supplying as much energy as they draw from the grid.

Home and commercial batteries, as small as a large TV and as large as a computer server room, are charged from a grid or rooftop solar panel. They release energy after the sun sets or during a power outage. This has become more common in recent years.

Some environmentalists argue that more use of rooftop solar and batteries is becoming more important due to climate change.

Pacific Gas and Electric began turning off on hot and windy days to prevent fires after Gear ignited several large wildfires. The company escaped bankruptcy last year after accumulating $ 30 billion in debt to a wildfire caused by equipment, including power lines.

Elizabeth Elenberg, an 87-year-old cancer survivor in Napa, California, purchased solar panels and batteries from Sunrun in 2019 to keep her refrigerator, oxygen equipment, and appliances running when the PG & E is powered down. It went well.

“Usually, PG & E ends in a few days instead of 24 hours,” said retired nurse Elenberg. “I need to have the ability to use medical devices. To live in my home, I needed electricity other than the power company.”

According to the company, it is working on improving the equipment. Sume et Singh, Chief Risk Officer of PG & E, said:

However, spending on fire protection by California utilities is raising electricity prices, and consumer groups say they will make them even higher by building more power lines.

Average household electricity bills have increased by about 14% over the last decade, despite an increase in average household energy use of just over 1%.

Regulators generally allow utilities to charge their customers for investment costs and rates of return (usually around 10.5%), giving companies incentives to build power plants and power plants.

“Obviously, we admire the government’s commitment to renewable energy, but the bigger it is, the better,” said the Secretary-General of the California Solar Storage Association, an organization lobbying the rooftop solar energy industry. , Bernadette del Chiaro says. “Smarter is looking at microgrids that include solar power on the roof. Obviously, utilities are stuck in the 20th century. They want to build a transcontinental railroad in the grid. “

A 2019 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research arm of the Department of Energy, shows that increasing the use of rooftop solar will reduce the need for new transmission lines, replace expensive power plants, and move electricity longer. It turns out that you can save the energy lost when you do distance. The study also found that rooftop systems could put pressure on utilities to improve or expand nearby wiring and equipment.

However, the utility industry claims that new power lines are needed to achieve 100% clean energy and power electric vehicles and trucks. Emily Sanford Fisher, senior vice president of clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents an investor-owned utility, said these high costs were the switch from fossil fuels to cheaper solar panels and wind turbines. It states that it will be offset by the costs saved by.

“Just because we’re spending more on things doesn’t mean we can’t benefit others,” Fisher said. “I think the problem isn’t overbuilding the transmission, it’s not enough.”

In February, Texas was paralyzed for more than four days by a deep freeze that closed its power plant and disabled its natural gas pipeline. People used cars and grills to burn furniture and keep it warm. At least 150 people died.

One of the reasons for the failure was that the state had largely separated the grid controlled by the Texas Electric Reliability Council from the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight. It prevented the state from importing electricity and made Texas the case for the interconnected electricity system that Biden wanted.

Consider Marfa, the artistic town of the Chihuahuan Desert. Residents had a hard time staying warm because the ground was covered with snow and icy rain. Still, the lights were on in Van Horn, Texas, 75 miles west. The town is serviced by El Paso Electric, a utility attached to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, a grid connecting 14 provinces, two Canadian provinces, and a Mexican province.

Ralph Kafana, an official at the Environmental Group’s Natural Resources Defense Council, said a more connected national grid could help disaster-stricken areas draw energy from other places. Said there is.

Mr. Biden agrees. He demanded a new power line during the presidential election.

It may have helped him gain the support of the utility, which usually gives Republicans greater campaign contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2020 elections, the industry’s political action committee and its executives gave Donald J. Trump about $ 1 million, compared to $ 1.4 million. ..

In Washington, developers of large solar and wind projects want a more connected grid, but utilities want more federal funding for new transmission lines. Proponents of rooftop solar panels and batteries are urging Congress for more federal incentives.

Apart from this, in the state capital, there is a fierce battle over the amount that utilities have to pay homeowners for the electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. California, Florida, and other utilities want lawmakers to reduce these fees. Homeowners with solar panels and renewable energy groups are fighting these efforts.

Despite Mr. Biden’s support, the utility industry can struggle to add power lines.

Many Americans resist power lines for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Strong economic interests are also working. In Maine, for example, a campaign is underway to suspend the 145-mile route that brings hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.

New England has phased out coal, but still uses natural gas. Congressmen want to change that with the help of a $ 1 billion line called New England Clean Energy Connect.

This spring, workers felled trees and installed steel rods in forests in western Maine. The project, first proposed 10 years ago, was to pass through New Hampshire until the state refused. Federal and state regulators have approved a main route sponsored by Central Main Power and Hydro-Québec.

However, the project has been involved in a lawsuit, and residents of Maine could block the project in a November vote.

Both Calpain and Vistra-funded environmental groups and political action committees, which operate gas power plants, are fighting this line. Opponents say they endanger the movement of grouse, mink and elk, uncover the trees that cool the river, and endanger the brook trout.

“This transmission line will have a significant impact on Maine’s environment and wildlife habitat,” said Sandra Howard, leader of the campaign for transmission lines.

Biden administration officials are sensitive to such concerns and want to build many transmission lines along the rights of highways, railroad tracks and other existing roads to minimize conflict. Said that he was.

But Mr. Biden doesn’t have much time. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere set a record in May, and some scientists believe that recent heat waves have been exacerbated by climate change.

“The power transmission project takes more than a decade from conception to completion,” said Douglas D. Giuffre, a power expert at IHS Markit. “Therefore, if you are considering decarbonizing the power sector by 2035, all this needs to be done very quickly.”

More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Battle for the Future of Energy

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