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Distributed vs. Utility Scale Renewables: A Dead-End Battle

On a rainy January day in Sacramento, I attended a plenary meeting of California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative. At one point, a smartly dressed man from one of the largest rooftop solar finance companies got up to tout the benefits of distributed energy, harping on the drawbacks of high-voltage transmission. Given the backlog of renewable energy projects in California requiring transmission, it was kind of amazing that he had bothered to come to a remote corner of the city to speak against the cause of his renewable energy brethren, an initiative that has zero impact on his firm. Needless to say, next time any of the assembled had a customer referral they would not be turning to this company.

While not all renewable energy company reps are so tone-deaf, the practice of selling distributed energy projects in opposition to all utility scale or central station power projects is outdated and an aid to the continuing dominance of fossil fuels in our electric system.

Distributed energy will continue to grow in importance and popularity, but alone it is insufficient to address the climate crisis. Large-scale renewable power in combination with aggressive energy efficiency and distributed generation will be absolutely necessary to meet the very ambitious GHG reduction and energy independence goals that we are setting for ourselves.

There are many in the RE community, some frequent commenters here, who have embraced the dream of renewable energy in which communities or individual buildings would become energy self-sufficient or even net energy producers. This dream will probably become reality on a broad scale at some point in the future, but unfortunately not fast enough to cut GHG emissions rapidly when we need it most. This is not for a lack of trying by technology firms, as there is big money and much glory involved in more cost-effective and productive distributed technologies.

Some fans of self-sufficiency are willing to devote time, mental bandwidth, and money to set themselves up to live off the grid (or live in remote areas anyway). But most of the population is either not inclined to live this way nor in the position to act on the inclination. The ideal of autarky is not everybody’s social or energy utopia; however, a substantially more energy-efficient lifestyle and built environment is, in my book, a categorical imperative.

Currently, grid-tied distributed generation is the far more user-friendly option. A hidden component of the argument for these systems is “grid storage,” the notion that when your system isn’t producing energy, the grid will supply you with the energy that you need.  Unfortunately, that grid is emitting some of the GHGs that you may be trying to avoid with your distributed generation system, especially in areas with coal-fired baseload, a fairly common situation in the sunny Southwest or windy Great Plains.

Well, now is the time to start thinking about cleaning up that “grid storage.” We can, through a combination of new geothermal, concentrating solar power with storage, small and medium hydro, concentrating photovoltaics (PV), regular PV, wind, marine renewables and pumped hydro, reduce the carbon footprint and therefore the ecological footprint of the grid. To clean up the grid means building some transmission lines (though less will need to be built if we build generation in areas with stronger renewable energy flow).

As it turns out, even if we follow the very favorable policy conditions for distributed and large-scale renewable energy found in Germany, most energy will be generated in large installations, owned by cooperatives or by corporations, and those installations will cost less per unit of energy. Much to the chagrin of some people, a lot of those larger projects may need to be cited on undeveloped land.

The people holding onto the ideal that power generation should be exclusively on developed land are avoiding the tough choices and inevitable compromises involved in building renewable generation facilities. They complain about the visual impact of wind turbines, solar farms or transmission lines without offering a realistic present day alternative that they and we will be able to afford.

Choices within the area of transmission lines provide a graphic example of a tradeoff: Overhead transmission lines are about one tenth the cost of underground transmission infrastructure. Do you want to pay perhaps three or four times as much for electricity for this luxury? Nature does not just put electrical energy on tap, even if you own a renewable energy system; it takes various industrial and construction processes that cost money and involve compromises to bring you that power.

Knee-jerk criticisms of the transmission system and utilities (sometimes found in the pages of this publication) flirt with a similar form of moral hazard. The utilities and grid operators, historically relying most on large-scale power plants, work to respond to our demand for electric power and the conveniences it offers us. In combination with related government agencies and transmission authorities, they have invested in and manage a huge infrastructure that is sending us the power that makes it possible for us to communicate, eat fresh food, get safe medical care, and move around safely. They have figured out ways to do this with a high level of efficiency and service, though unfortunately with fuels that are now endangering our climate. Some critics speak as if it is a breeze to reproduce this service on a smaller scale. This, I believe is either wishful thinking or ignorance.

As Pogo said:  "We have met the enemy and he is us."

So think carefully when you declare distributed energy the only solution: Is this going to be the sole road via which we transition from a fossil fuel to a renewable energy economy?  Have you figured out what the costs and availability of generation and storage are that will allow us to energize the devices that we need or want to use, individually and as a society? If you do the calculations, you will realize that developing judiciously sited central station renewable energy plants, new transmission lines, clean storage and ancillary services, as well as distributed generation is the only way we as a society are going to stop climate change while keeping our impact on the earth to a minimum.

Michael Hoexter, Ph.D., a renewable energy and energy efficiency advocate, has helped California utilities implement and market energy and resource efficiency programs. His views on the transition to a sustainable energy economy and the valuation of energy and energy services can be found at www.greenthoughts.us.

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