At the Solar Power International conference, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) argued for a change in focus for solar power and utility regulation. She boasted the recent passage of federal solar tax credits and pushed for a federally regulated energy policy. She also promised to work for new transmission lines to accommodate the upcoming increase in solar power plants. The only answer to this increase in solar generation, Cantwell claimed, will be a national electric grid where utilities are regulated at the federal level as opposed to the mainly state-regulated system that exists now.
This, however, will be a difficult task. Since the Clinton administration and The Energy Policy Act of 1992, utilities have largely been deregulated and are not likely to go along without protest. Nonetheless, it is this deregulation that has wreaked havoc on the current electric grid. The fact is (see What’s wrong with the electric grid?) that in 1992, for all intents and purposes, electricity was changed from an “essential service” into a “commodity.” Since that time electricity has been traded above grid capacity, forcing longer transmission distances and an over-stressed grid. One need only look at the California electricity crisis of 2001-2002 and the August 2003 blackout of much of the Northeastern U.S. for evidence of an overburdened and manipulated grid.
Where is the money?
It is fairly obvious that the electric grid is in rough shape and already having trouble keeping up with renewable power generation. New work needs to be done to bring infrastructure up to date, especially for wind power. Yet a big hurdle will be money. According to Cantwell, it will take $900 billion to bring the system up to date and ready to handle transmission of renewable energy from remote locations to the urban populace.
Where will this money come from? The amount is freakishly similar to the amount Congress just doled out to bankers, with the possibility of even more on the way. It is already a national wonder where this money will come from. While it may seem like it, simply printing more money is no solution (see our national debt).
In off the farm or down from the roof?
Could we not save considerable amounts of money by changing utility regulations and focusing on the acres upon acres of available rooftop space for solar systems rather than on remote solar and wind farms? Arguably these distant farms will cost much more to implement, considering transmission problems, than they will save initially? Not to say that there aren’t inherent benefits in renewable power – regardless of location – but if infrastructure and production costs are high, then we will see little change in already-costly electric bills.
So, I dare posit, that solar installations at the source of need are a more logical way to go. Many have long argued that this is a huge advantage for solar power. Take, for example, a large apartment complex and then imagine the massive amount of roof space available for solar panels to produce at least a good portion of the complex’s energy needs. This would greatly ease the load on the grid and reduce the need for bulkier transmission lines. Not to mention a reduction in energy costs for tenants and owners with free energy wired directly into the building.
A change is needed.
Cantwell is right in saying that something must be done, but simply updating a national grid to meet our present demands, while essentially keeping the same grid we now have, is a temporary solution at best. We need to ensure that locally generated electricity stays as local as possible. The currently deregulated grid will not achieve this. If the feds can ensure this than that’s fine, but states will probably be reluctant to give away control over their power generation to a federal government that does little to control the corporations that abuse the system.