Once in a generation, the nation faces choices about how to power homes, businesses, and electric cars—decisions that can shape a path Climate change determining how the United States deals with wildfires, Heat waves and other extreme weather linked to global warming.
On the one hand, large electric utilities and President Biden want to build thousands of miles of power lines to transmit electricity created by remote. Wind turbines and solar farms to cities and suburbs. On the other hand, some environmental organizations and community groups are pushing for greater investment in rooftop solar panels, batteries, and local wind turbines.
There is a sharp political struggle going on in Washington and US capitals About the choices lawmakers, energy companies and individuals make in the next few years, which could lock in the decades-long energy system. The split between those who want more power lines and those who demand a more decentralized energy system has split the renewable energy industry and the environmental movement. It has forged favorable partnerships between fossil fuel companies and local groups fighting power lines.
The controversy revolves around how quickly the country can transition to cleaner energy and how much electricity prices will increase.
Biden secured $73 billion for thousands of miles of new power lines in an infrastructure proposal he and Senators from both parties approved in June. That deal includes the creation of the Network Development Authority to expedite approvals for transmission lines.
Most energy experts agree that the United States should improve its old power grids, especially after millions of Texas Spent very cold days this winter When the state’s electricity system falters.
“The choices we make today will set us on a path that, if history is any measure, could last for 50 to 100 years,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Laboratory at Tufts University. “The health and economic well-being of every American is at stake.”
The option Mr. Biden and some of the big energy companies are supporting is to replace coal and natural gas power plants with large wind and solar farms hundreds of miles from cities, which would require a lot of new power lines. Such integration would enhance the utility industry’s Wall Street control over the grid.
“You have to have a big national plan to make sure that energy goes from where it’s being generated to where it’s needed,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in an interview.
But many of Biden’s liberal allies argue that solar panels, batteries and other domestic energy sources should be emphasized because they will be more flexible and can be built more quickly.
“We need to build an electricity transmission and distribution system for the grid of the future, not the grid of the past,” said Howard Lerner, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization. “Solar energy, in addition to storage, is a transformative factor for the electricity sector, as is the wireless services for the telecommunications sector.”
In all likelihood, there will be a mix of solutions that include more transmission lines and rooftop solar panels. What mix will emerge will depend on the deals being made in Congress as well as the skirmishes taking place across the country.
Ms Granholm said the department supports solar and rooftop micro-grid systems, which are the systems that allow cities or neighborhoods to generate and use their own electricity. Mr. Biden has proposed a federal investment tax credit for domestic energy storage projects, for example. But, she added, decentralized methods will not be enough to achieve the main goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by 2035.
Homes as producers, not just users of power.
When millions of California homes went dark during last summer’s heat wave, help came from an unusual source: Batteries installed in homes, businesses and municipal buildings.
These batteries, combined with rooftop solar, have been able to provide up to 6 percent of the country’s power supply during the crisis, helping to offset idling natural gas and nuclear power plants. Rooftop solar panels produced an additional 4 percent of the state’s electricity.
This result – homeowners and businesses helping the network – would have been unimaginable a decade ago. For more than a century, electricity has flowed in one direction: from power plants to people.
California has shown that homes and businesses do not have to be passive consumers. They can become small power plants, and potentially earn a lot of energy savings because they pay for the electricity they get from the grid.
Home and work batteries, which can be as small as a TV and as large as a computer server room, are charged from the grid or rooftop solar panels. They release energy after sunset or during a power outage It has become more and more popular in recent years.
Some environmentalists argue that the increased use of solar energy and batteries on roofs is becoming more important due to climate change.
gear dimension Many large forest fires were litPacific Gas and Electric Company began cutting electricity on hot and windy days to prevent fires. company I came out of bankruptcy last year after accumulating $30 billion in liabilities from wildfires caused by its equipment, including transmission lines.
Elizabeth Ellenburg, 87, a cancer survivor in Napa, California, bought solar panels and a battery from Sunrun in 2019 to keep her refrigerator, oxygen equipment, and appliances running during a PG&E power outage, a plan she said contained On the job well.
“Usually, when PG&E comes out, it doesn’t take 24 hours – it’s days,” said Ms. Ellenberg, a retired nurse. “I need to be able to use medical equipment. To live in my house, I needed energy other than the power company.”
The company says it is working on getting better its equipment. “Our focus is on making our distribution and transmission system more resilient and fireproof,” said Sumit Singh, chief risk officer at PG&E.
But spending on fire prevention by California utilities has driven up electricity prices, and consumer groups say building more power lines will drive them up.
National average residential electricity rates have risen about 14 percent over the past decade even though average home energy use has risen by just over 1 percent.
Regulators generally allow utilities to charge customers the cost of investments as well as a profit margin, typically around 10.5 percent, giving companies an incentive to build plants and power lines.
“Obviously we applaud the administration’s commitment to renewable energy, but bigger isn’t always better,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy and Storage Association, an organization that pushes for the rooftop solar industry. “The smartest is looking toward small grids, including rooftop solar. The utilities are clearly stuck in the 20th century. They want to build a transcontinental railroad for the power grid.”
a 2019 report issued by the National Renewable Energy LaboratoryHe found, a research arm of the Department of Energy, that increased use of rooftop solar energy could reduce the need for new transmission lines, replace expensive power plants, and save energy lost when transporting electricity over long distances. The study also found that rooftop systems can stress utilities to improve or extend adjacent wiring and equipment.
But the utility industry says new transmission lines are needed to get 100 percent clean energy and power electric cars and trucks. These higher costs will be offset by money saved from switching from fossil fuels to solar panels and cheaper wind turbines, said Emily Sanford Fisher, senior vice president of clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities.
“Just because we spend money on more things doesn’t mean we don’t get advantages over others,” Ms Fisher said. “I think the problem is not that we’re going to build too much transmission, it’s that we won’t get enough.”
The Texas freeze highlighted the network’s weaknesses.
in february, Texas has been paralyzed for more than four days By deep freeze that shut down power plants and disrupted natural gas pipelines. People used cars, grills, and even burning furniture for heating; At least 150 died.
One of the reasons for the failure was that the state had maintained Grid operated by the Texas Electrical Reliability Council largely separate from the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight. This prevented the state from importing energy and made Texas the case for the interconnected energy system that Biden wanted.
Consider Marfa, an artsy town in the Chihuahua desert. Residents struggled to stay warm as the ground was covered in snow and freezing rain. 75 miles to the west, the lights were on in Van Horn, Texas. This city is served by El Paso Electric, a facility attached to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, a network that connects 14 states, two Canadian provinces, and a Mexican state.
A more connected national grid could help disaster-hit places get energy from other places, said Ralph Kavanaugh, an official with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Mr. Biden agrees. He even called for new power lines during his presidential campaign.
This may have helped him win the support of electric utilities, which usually make larger campaign contributions to Republicans. During the 2020 election, the industry’s political action committees and their executives gave it to him 1.4 million dollars, compared to about $1 million for Donald J. Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In Washington, developers of large solar and wind projects are pushing toward a more connected grid while utilities want more federal funding for new transmission lines. Advocates of solar panels and batteries on rooftops are pressing Congress for more federal stimulus.
Separately, there are fierce battles raging in state capitals over how much services to pay homeowners for electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. Utilities in California, Florida and elsewhere want lawmakers to lower those rates. Homeowners with solar panels and renewable energy kits are battling these efforts.
It is difficult to build power lines.
Despite Mr Biden’s support, the utility industry could struggle to add power lines.
Many Americans resist transmission lines for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Strong economic interests also play a role. In Maine, for example, a campaign is underway to stop a 145-mile line that would bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.
New England has phased out coal but still uses natural gas. Lawmakers hope to change that with the help of the billion-dollar line, called the New England Clean Energy Connect.
This spring, workers removed trees and installed steel poles in the woods of western Maine. First proposed a decade ago, the project was supposed to run through New Hampshire until it was rejected by the state. State and federal regulators have signed off on Maine Road, which is sponsored by Central Maine Power and HydroQuebec.
But the project is mired in lawsuits, and Maine residents can block it with a November ballot.
Environmental groups and a political action committee funded by Calpine and Vistra, which operate gas power plants, are fighting the line. Opponents say it will endanger the migrations of grouse, mink and moose, remove tree cover that cools rivers and endanger trout.
“This transmission line will have serious implications for Maine’s environment and wildlife habitat,” said Sandra Howard, campaign leader against this line.
Biden administration officials said they are sensitive to such concerns and want to build several power lines along existing highways, railroads and other rights of way to reduce disputes.
But Mr. Biden doesn’t have much time. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere Set a record in MaySome scholars believe recent heat waves exacerbated by climate change.
“Transportation projects take up to 10 years from conception to completion,” said Douglas deGoffre, energy expert at IHS Markit. “So if we’re looking to decarbonize the energy sector by 2035, all of this has to happen very quickly.”