Home » More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Fight Over Energy’s Future

More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Fight Over Energy’s Future

by Zahoor Ul Haq

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New transmission lines are needed to transfer electricity from massive solar and wind farms, according to the president and energy corporations. Smaller, more localized systems are being pushed by certain environmentalists and homeowners.

The country is confronted with once-in-a-generation decisions about how energy should be delivered to homes, businesses, and electric cars — decisions that could shape the course of climate change and determine how the US deals with wildfires, heat waves, and other extreme weather linked to global warming.

Large electric utilities and President Biden, on the one hand, want to lay thousands of miles of power lines to transport electricity generated by far-flung wind turbines and solar farms to towns and suburbs. Some environmental and community groups, on the other hand, are advocating for increased investment in rooftop solar panels, batteries, and local wind turbines.

In Washington and state capitals, a fierce policy battle is raging over the choices that lawmakers, energy companies, and citizens will make in the next years, which could lock in a long-term energy system. The renewable energy sector and the environmental movement have been torn by the conflict between those who want additional power lines and those who seek a more decentralized energy system. It’s also resulted in a symbiotic relationship between fossil fuel companies and local groups battling power lines.

The question is how soon the country can transition to greener energy, as well as how much electricity costs will rise.

In an infrastructure package he and senators from both parties agreed to in June, Mr. Biden obtained $73 billion for thousands of miles of new electricity lines. The agreement also includes the creation of a Grid Development Authority to expedite transmission line permits.

Most energy experts agree that the United States has to upgrade its old electric systems, particularly after millions of Texans were left without power for days this winter when the state’s power grid failed.

“The decisions we make today will set us on a course that, if history is any guide, may last 50 to 100 years,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of Tufts University’s Climate Policy Lab.

Mr. Biden’s and some large energy corporations’ preferred alternative would replace coal and natural gas power facilities with massive wind and solar farms hundreds of miles from cities, necessitating the construction of numerous new power lines. The utility business and Wall Street would have more power over the grid as a result of this convergence.

In an interview, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm remarked, “You have to have a large national plan to make sure the power goes from where it’s created to where it’s needed.”

Many of Mr. Biden’s liberal allies, on the other hand, think that solar panels, batteries, and other local energy sources should be prioritized because they are more resilient and can be created faster.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based NGO, said, “We need to develop the electrical transmission and distribution system for the grid of the future, not the grid of the past.” “Solar energy combined with storage is transforming the electric sector in the same way that wireless services did the telecommunications sector.”

More transmission lines and home solar panels are almost certainly going to be part of the mix. What mix emerges will be determined by congressional agreements as well as regional battles. The administration, according to Ms. Granholm, supports rooftop solar and microgrids, which allow cities or neighborhoods to generate and utilize their own electricity. For example, Mr. Biden has suggested a federal investment tax credit for local energy storage projects. Decentralized alternatives, she warned, would not be enough to meet the president’s objective of zero greenhouse gas emissions from the power industry by 2035.

Last summer, when millions of Californians lost power due to a heat wave, aid came from an unexpected source: batteries installed in homes, businesses, and government buildings.

During the crisis, the batteries provided up to 6% of the state grid’s power supply, helping to compensate for idled natural gas and nuclear power units.

Solar panels on roofs generated an additional 4% of the state’s electricity.

A decade ago, this outcome – households and businesses assisting the grid — would have been inconceivable. Electricity has only gone one way for over a century: from power plants to people.

California has demonstrated that consumers do not have to be passive. They might turn into little power plants, earning as much from supplying energy as they do from drawing electricity from the grid.

The grid or rooftop solar panels charge home and corporate batteries, which can be as tiny as a huge television and as large as a computer server room. After the sun has set or during blackouts, which have become more prevalent in recent years, they discharge energy.

Because of climate change, some environmentalists say that growing usage of rooftop solar and batteries is becoming more important.

Pacific Gas & Electric began cutting off electricity on hot and windy days to prevent flames after its equipment ignited several huge wildfires. After accruing $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires caused by its equipment, including transmission lines, the business declared bankruptcy last year.

In 2019, Elizabeth Ellenburg, an 87-year-old cancer survivor from Napa, Calif., purchased solar panels and a battery from Sunrun to keep her refrigerator, oxygen equipment, and other appliances working during PG&E power outages, a scheme she said has worked effectively.

“When PG&E goes down, it usually lasts days, not hours,” said Ms.Ellenburg, a former nurse. “I’ll need to be able to operate medical equipment. I required power from sources other than the power company to live in my own home.” The business claims to be working to upgrade its equipment. PG&E’s chief risk officer, Sumeet Singh, stated, “Our objective is to make both our distribution and transmission system more resilient and fireproof.”

However, California utilities’ fire-prevention spending has increased electricity prices, and consumer organizations claim that adding more power lines will raise them much more.

Over the last decade, average residential electricity bills have risen by roughly 14%, despite an increase in average household energy use of just over 1%.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded in a 2019 analysis that increasing the usage of rooftop solar panels can help minimize the need for new transmission lines.

Regulators normally allow utilities to charge customers the cost of investments plus a profit margin of about 10.5 percent, providing an incentive for firms to expand power plants and lines.

“Obviously, we support the administration’s dedication to renewable energy,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, which advocates for the rooftop solar business. “Smarter is focusing on microgrids, which include rooftop solar. The utilities are clearly trapped in the twentieth century; They aim to establish the electric grid’s transcontinental railroad.”

Rooftop solar can lessen the need for new transmission lines, displace expensive power plants, and save energy lost when electricity is transported long distances, according to a 2019 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research branch of the Energy Department.

Rooftop systems can also put pressure on utilities to repair or expand local lines and infrastructure, according to the report.

The utility industry, on the other hand, claims that new transmission lines are required to achieve 100% clean energy and power electric cars and trucks. According to Emily Sanford Fisher, senior vice president for clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, the money saved from moving from fossil fuels to cheaper solar panels and wind turbines will balance those high costs.

Ms. Fisher explained, “Just because we’re spending more money on some things doesn’t mean we’re not getting benefits from others.” “I believe the issue isn’t that we’ll construct too much transmission, but rather that we won’t have enough.”

A strong frost in February crippled Texas for more than four days, shutting down power plants and disrupting natural gas pipelines.

One reason for the failure was that, in order to escape federal inspection, the state kept the system operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas substantially unconnected from the rest of the country. This stopped Texas from importing electricity and made Texas a strong candidate for Mr. Biden’s proposed interconnected power system.

Consider the artsy town of Marfa in the Chihuahuan Desert. As the ground was buried with snow and freezing rain, residents fought to remain warm. However, 75 miles to the west, in Van Horn, Texas, the lights were turned on. El Paso Electric, a utility affiliated with the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, a grid that connects 14 states, two Canadian provinces, and a Mexican state, serves that town.

According to Ralph Cavanagh, an expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a more integrated national grid might assist disaster-stricken areas draw energy from elsewhere.

Mr. Biden concurs. During his presidential campaign, he even advocated for additional electricity lines.

That may have aided him in gaining the support of electric utilities, which normally contribute more to Republican campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry’s political action committees and executives contributed him $1.4 million during the 2020 race, compared to around $1 million for Donald J. Trump.

Large solar and wind companies are lobbying for a more integrated grid in Washington, while utilities want more federal support for new transmission lines. Rooftop solar panel and battery advocates are pleading with Congress for more federal incentives.

Separately, state legislatures are wrangling over how much utilities must pay homeowners for electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. Utilities in California, Florida, and other states want those rates lowered. Solar panel owners and renewable energy organizations are contesting these plans.

The utility company may struggle to build power lines despite Mr. Biden’s support.

For aesthetic and environmental grounds, many Americans oppose transmission lines. Economic interests with a lot of clout are also at play. A movement is beginning in Maine to oppose the construction of a 145-mile line that will transport hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.

Although coal has been phased out in New England, natural gas is still used. With the help of the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect line, lawmakers hope to change that.

Workmen in western Maine’s woodlands removed trees and placed steel poles this spring. The project was first proposed a decade ago and was going to cut through New Hampshire until it was rejected by the state. The Maine route, which is sponsored by Central Maine Power and HydroQuebec, has received approval from federal and state regulators.

However, the project is embroiled in litigation, and Maine citizens may be able to stop it with a ballot measure in November.

The line is being fought by environmental groups and a political action committee backed by Calpine and Vistra, two companies that operate gas power facilities. Opponents say it will jeopardize migrations of grouse, mink and moose and remove tree cover that cools rivers, endangering brook trout.

Sandra Howard, a leader of the anti-line effort, said, “This transmission line would have significant repercussions on Maine’s ecology and wildlife habitat.”

Officials from the Biden administration have stated that they are aware of such problems and that many power lines should be installed along highways, rail tracks, and other existing rights of way to reduce conflicts.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, is short on time. In May, the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a new high, and some experts believe climate change has exacerbated recent heat waves. “From conception to completion, transmission projects can take up to ten years,” said Douglas D. Giuffre, an IHS Markit power analyst. “So, if we want to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, all of this has to happen very quickly.”

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