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August 19, 2008

Blocking the Sun and the Wind

If you think solar and wind power are important for decarbonizing the atmosphere and/or for reducing our need for expensive imported energy from dangerous places, then you ought to be in favor of a massive buildout of America's electric grid. Too often self-styled environmentalists (not genuine environmentalists like you and me), are a significant obstacle to making alternative energy an actual achievable alternative to traditional energy sources.

This sad story is told well in a Wall Street Journal Editorial aptly entitled "Wind Jammers":

"…the greens are blocking the very transmission network needed for renewable electricity to move throughout the economy. The best sites for wind and solar energy happen to be in the sticks -- in the desert Southwest where sunlight is most intense for longest, or the plains where the wind blows most often. To exploit this energy, utilities need to build transmission lines to connect their electricity to the places where consumers actually live. In addition to other technical problems, the transmission gap is a big reason wind only provides two-thirds of 1% of electricity generated in the U.S., and solar one-tenth of 1%.

"Only last week, Duke Energy and American Electric Power announced a $1 billion joint venture to build a mere 240 miles of transmission line in Indiana necessary to accommodate new wind farms. Yet the utilities don't expect to be able to complete the lines for six long years -- until 2014, at the earliest, because of the time necessary to obtain regulatory approval and rights-of-way, plus the obligatory lawsuits.

"In California, hundreds turned out at the end of July to protest a connection between the solar and geothermal fields of the Imperial Valley to Los Angeles and Orange County. The environmental class is likewise lobbying state commissioners to kill a 150-mile link between San Diego and solar panels because it would entail a 20-mile jaunt through Anza-Borrego state park. "It's kind of schizophrenic behavior," Arnold Schwarzenegger said recently. "They say that we want renewable energy, but we don't want you to put it anywhere.""

In the last fifty years we've passed a series of environmental laws needed to reverse centuries of environmental neglect. Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung so far that some of these laws have become a significant threat to the environment they were meant to protect. Trade-offs have become near impossible; the status quo nearly unshakable. Luddites and NIMBYers alike have learned to manipulate well-intended environmental protection laws to impose huge delays on any project of any significance. The most difficult part of any large project is filing the Environmental Impact Statement and fighting through the consecutive string of lawsuits and costly injunctions which follow.

Even way back in 1981 when I was Vermont Secretary of Transportation, we knew in the agency that it took twenty years to build or significantly improve a road. Seventeen years went to getting the permits and fighting off the lawsuits; one year or so for property acquisition; and two years (given our winter hiatus) for actual construction. When we were done, people would point out that we had built the wrong road in the wrong place. They were right; things change in twenty years but you can't change the plan or you go back to square one. Meanwhile, accidentally or on purpose, people buy real estate on the likely route so the eventual cost of land acquisition is much higher than originally planned even allowing for inflation. Overrun!

Well, we don't need that many new roads now that we have the Interstate System (which, incidentally, we'd never be able to build under current law). But we do badly need a rebuilt and expanded electric power grid if we're going to be able to effectively use wind or solar energy, wean our houses from heating oil, plug in our hybrid electric vehicles, and reduce the use of natural gas for supplying peak power. (If you want to reduce coal use, too, then you really need that grid plus lots and lots of new nukes. If you're against coastal drilling, you ought to be stringing power lines yourself through your backyard).

Not incidentally, the grid is the answer to the objection that you can't count on the sun and the wind. Somewhere in our great country the wind is always blowing; every day the sun shines someplace in the USA. Our huge hydro electric dams can hold back water when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing – and spool up on still, dark days. All of that can work IF we have a national grid with adequate capacity.

Both presidential candidates have plans to subsidize their favored forms of energy. Government subsidies and well-meaning mandates for renewable power are most likely to create another boondoggle to rival the ethanol fiasco. On the other hand, governments at all levels can and must change their own laws and regulations so that capital can effectively be put into the power grid rapidly. Because there will then be a national market for "alternative" energy, excess supply in one place can flow through the grid to meet demand in another. The economics of generation improve. The price of energy is lower than it would be otherwise. Non-carbon energy can find its own place (which I think will be big) in the national energy mix.

This change doesn't mean no environmental review. It just means the review is done on a predictable schedule and is final when it is final – not twenty years later. After all, if we wait twenty years, according to some of the same people who don't want new power lines, our coastal cities will be on an unstoppable path to inundation. If this an emergency – environmentally, security-wise, or economically, then we need to move quickly. The only real obstacle is us.

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