Centralized or distributed power? We need both (for now)

Centralized or distributed power? We need both (for now)

power lines centralized distributed energy grid
ShutterstockChaiyaporn Baokaew
At least for the short term, it likely will take an "all-of-the-above" approach to scale renewable energy.

Even in the light of post-COP21 optimism and a "can do" spirit when it comes to our ability to forcefully respond to the global warming crisis, a question urgently needs to be answered as the solution to this massive problem unfolds at an accelerating pace.

Everyone likes renewables, but how do we like them: centralized or distributed?

More to the point, what role do we see the utilities playing as we move into a clean energy future? Will we become self-sufficient energy pioneers, with solar panels on our roofs and backup batteries in the basement, in a world where we won’t need utilities anymore, thank you very much?

Or perhaps we should keep them around, to provide backup, so we don’t have to buy those expensive batteries. What about community microgrids? Should we allow the utilities to manage the power for us, combining large scale solar, wind and hydro projects, along with other sources, in the most efficient manner?

There are reasons to recommend each scenario and, at least in the near term, we also certainly will find ourselves with a healthy dose of all-of-the-above.

But a recent report, jointly produced by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, tends to favor the last option. The report said that under certain scenarios, renewables could meet the vast majority of our electric demand in 15 years, cutting emissions by as much as 80 percent. But the real kicker was that they said that they could do it without storage.

How, you ask? The fact is that although renewables are inherently intermittent, wind or sun is always available somewhere. What is needed, however, to make it all work, is a massively updated grid that can bring renewable power from any part of the country to any other part. That way the grid can respond with renewables at any time, to wherever power is needed.

Although efforts are already underway to build such a grid, or 3,100 miles of it anyway, those efforts are meeting significant resistance.

A recent New York Times piece describes a number of long-distance transmission lines that have been denied permission to move through certain states due to objections at the local level. For example, the 780-mile Grain Line Express, designed to carry 4000 MW of wind power east from the heart of the country, already had been approved in Kansas, Illinois and Indiana when Missouri decided to block it. Many of these places with lots of clean energy in the form of wind or sun have relatively few people.

It’s not hard to understand how some of those people feel. The powerlines and the 150-foot towers that support them are unsightly, they disrupt otherwise scenic views and threaten the rural character of the landscape. At the same time, the power is merely passing through these areas; local residents will receive little benefit beyond whatever compensation they get from developers.

In an increasing complex and interconnected world, it can be difficult to see the benefit, or even the point of actions that have little local impact but could make a good deal of difference somewhere else. At the same time, "buy local" has become a clarion call for many who support a more sustainable economy.

Could this be an example of the perfect getting in the way of the good? Given the urgency of the climate situation, we need to do whatever we can to reduce emissions as quickly as possible.

Perhaps, at some point in the future, we will find ourselves getting the vast majority of our energy locally. There are clearly advantages: reduced transmission losses and resiliency against widespread blackouts being two of them.

But given the massive investments that already have been made in utility-scale wind projects, we will, of necessity, need to rely on those to quickly make the transition to clean energy. Besides, not every area has sufficient renewable resources to meet their needs, or the space available to harvest them.

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