Renewables are inevitable, transmission is optional

Date: 22 Oct 2009 | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

We all agree that a 100% renewable energy system is preferable.  But we don’t need a new, high-voltage transmission network now to reach that goal, and it’s far from clear that we’ll need it in the future. 

Wecurrently get less than 10% of our electricity from wind and solar. The industry goal for wind is 20% by 2030 and the solar target is likely less given the smaller installed base.  Every state can reach the 2030 renewable energy targets without an new, interstate transmission superhighway or significant storage – and that’s 20 years away.

Butlet’s be more optimistic and assume we’ll exceed these goals significantly (as we must to successfully solve global warming).  All else being equal, we have to find the best method to deliver renewable power everywhere on demand, whether that’s a smarter grid (with demand response), storage, or new transmission. 

But all else is not equal.  I quote Mr Libow ( We Need Transmission to Solve Global Warming):

“Another trick here is that [ILSR doesn’t] consider electricity needs if we substitute electricity for a large portion of transportation energy, and possibly for industrial needs.”

More electric vehicles means more electricity demand, but it also means storage.  In Driving Our Way to Energy Independence, ILSR author David Morris notes that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District studied the impact of plug-in hybrid vehicles and found that the storage in a local PHEV fleet could fill in for 250 MW of wind power for 8 hours.  If we electrify transportation nationally, we put millions – billions – of kilo-watt hours into car batteries. 

Pursuinga new high-voltage transmission superhighway puts the ($100-200 billion) cart before the horse.  Do we really want to build a new, costly transmission network that could be orphaned by a fleet of distributed batteries in cars?

Additionally, pursuing a new high-voltage transmission superhighway by using federal preemption is a tactical error.  It risks alienating clean energy allies in states that prefer self-reliance to import-dependence.  How will we solve global warming with renewable energy if citizens see wind and solar power as indistinguishable from large, undesirable transmission lines in their backyard?

We must have ambitious renewable energy goals and, ultimately, transform our electricity system to 100% renewable.  But a new interstate high-voltage transmission network is not a prerequisite.  Rather, it may prove a costly financial and political distraction from the clean energy transition.

This was originally posted at Grist.

John Farrell
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John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.