As the Obama administration and Congress search for worthy infrastructure projects to fund as part of the stimulus and economic-recovery package, there is a growing consensus in support of major investment in the renewal and greening of America’s electricity grid. Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens’s plan for a huge new grid to tap wind energy across the Plains States has attracted the most attention, but the grandest aspiration is for a “national backbone grid,” a coast-to-coast project tapping renewable energy sources that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
Big electric-transmission projects have developed a potent support base that includes large utility companies as well as many environmentalists, who argue that all means must be pursued to save the planet by reducing the burning of fossil fuels. The presumption is that big new transmission projects are required to reach America’s vast renewable resources, from the strong, steady winds of the Midwest to the relentless sun of the Southwestern deserts.
Although massive expansion of the electric grid threatens to despoil the last of America’s undeveloped places, some environmentalists mistakenly believe the urgency of dealing with climate change leaves no alternative to large, remotely sited renewable electric-generation facilities and the transmission lines they need to get power to consumers. In fact, there is an alternative: “distributed generation,” or smaller solar technology installations on rooftops and near existing transmission lines, or even scaled-down wind farms sited closer to consumers.
To be sure, the romance of a renewable national grid is classic American thinking: a big problem requires a big solution. But the distributed generation approach (DG in energy lingo) is emerging from advances in solar technology and detailed studies of alternatives to big power-line projects. Consider what happened when Minnesota regulators looked carefully last year at the CapX 2020 project, a proposed cluster of new power lines costing up to $1.7 billion. A key purpose of the lines was to link Minnesota with proposed wind farms in the Dakotas. This is just the type of project favored by Pickens and other supporters of big electric transmission. But after examination the regulators found that Minnesota could develop many small 10-40 megawatt wind farms within the state totaling 600 megawatts–equivalent to a modern power plant–without any new transmission.
“We call it the ‘600 megawatts for nothing’ study,” said Mike Michaud, an engineer and consultant who formerly worked with the state regulatory staff. “There was no denying there were twenty spots on the existing grid [where] you could put generation for no cost at all.” Michaud added that there is no guarantee the $1.7 billion transmission project would be restricted to clean power–it might in some cases be used to transport power from coal-burning plants.