Off-The-Radar Renewable Energy Explosion After COVID-19 Dust Settles — CleanTechnica Interview

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Earlier this week, renewable energy advocates raised the alarm when it became clear that the new $2 trillion stimulus package will not shine so kindly upon wind, solar, and other clean tech. That stinks, but the groundwork for a low carbon revolution was already laid by another stimulus bill that passed Congress way back before the latest crisis hit — just about 11 years ago, as a matter of fact.

renewable energy electric grid
The electric grid is changing under our feet (screenshot, cropped via US EPA interactive map)

ARRA And The Renewable Energy Revolution

If you’re thinking of ARRA — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — run right out and buy yourself a cigar.

The 2009 stimulus package was a response to the global financial meltdown of 2008. I know, right? Seems like eons ago!

In retrospect ARRA seems rather quaint with its mere $787 million in funding to prop up the US economy. Nevertheless, a little can go a long way, and all those clean tech goodies in ARRA — including green job creation — continued to spin out over the years.

ARRA did support carbon-heavy projects like the ill-fated $1 billion FutureGen “clean coal” debacle, but it also kicked renewables into gear. In particular, ARRA jumpstarted the solar industry at a time when PV technology was still struggling with high costs.

Zombie Stimulus Rises From Grave

ARRA is long gone, but its impact is still alive and kicking.

Last week CleanTechnica checked in with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association for a rundown on their members’ renewable energy projects, and one theme that came up was the legacy effect of ARRA.

That impact is amply illustrated by an ARRA-supported smart grid initiative, complete with smart meters.

Compared to other utilities, rural electric co-ops were relatively quick to take advantage of smart meter technology, partly on account of the attractive payback. NRECA members are generally characterized by far-flung operations, which means that remote monitoring and control can replace many hours on the road for both personnel and trucks.

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In addition, the special legal status of co-ops enables them to act on new technology more quickly than other utilities.

To sum up: ARRA dollars enabled co-ops to begin amassing reams of data through smart meters, and NRECA has been finding new ways to deploy that data with other stakeholders (including an interesting Defense Department microgrid project).

Distributed Energy: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

The smart meter data is part of a broader modeling platform in partnership with the Energy Department, aimed at smoothing the way for more wind and solar to enter the grid.

Aside from utility-scale wind and solar arrays, the modeling is also aimed at distributed energy resources. The DERS category can include fairly large sources of electricity, but it can also get incredibly granular.

One example mentioned by NRECA is the power wholesale co-op Great River Energy, which supplies electricity to 28 co-ops in Minnesota totaling 700,000 families, farms, and businesses.

Great River offers a suite of load-balancing options to end users, including an electric thermal energy storage option that links thousands of individual 100-gallon water heaters into something NRECA calls “community energy storage.”

The heaters are charged at night when wind farm output is high and demand is low. With a fresh load of hot water ready for the morning, the heaters can be switched off during the initial daytime surge in electricity demand.

Onward & Upward For Clean Power

NRECA highlighted another trend to keep an eye on, which is something it calls “beneficial electrification.”

That’s shorthand for cutting the ties between electric vehicles and electricity sourced from fossil fuels.

Even though former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan never actually went into effect, the nation’s electricity grid has been shedding fossil fuel power plants right, left, and center as the cost of renewable energy keeps going down.

The result is that the grid is getting cleaner. So for example, rural communities now have more opportunities to take their diesel-spewing school buses off the road and replace them with clean electric buses, without fomenting additional demand for fossil-sourced electricity.

The same goes for farm equipment, with one particularly interesting example being a cable-fed, autonomous, all-electric tractor that John Deere has been tinkering around with.

Circling back around to the new COVID-19 stimulus bill, phooey on that. Investors are deserting the fossil area like, well, pick your own simile. A one-time shot of adrenaline won’t change the unstoppable force of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is looking forward to more news from NRECA, so stay tuned. In particular, Alaska has become a hot-spot for clean tech innovation by rural electric co-ops, on account of the difficulty in getting conventional fuel out to remote communities.

As the saying goes, anything is better than shipped diesel.

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Image (screenshot, cropped): via US EPA, Electric Power Grid interactive map.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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