Renewables Face Two Major Challenges — FUD & Connection Challenges

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Renewables can power the world. So why are we still burning fossil fuels? That may seem like a complex question, but in my view, the answer is quite simple. First, we may know how to make renewable electricity, but we don’t know how to distribute it efficiently yet. Second, the businesses that stand to lose out if renewables take over are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their profits.

I was having a discussion the other day with a reader about complexity. I contend that most things are quite simple, but we tend to complicate them to serve our own personal agendas. Take economics, for example. Stripped down to its essentials, humans are motivated by money. No surprise there. I write for CleanTechnica partly because I enjoy doing it. It keeps my mind active and helps me explore new things that I would know nothing about otherwise. But I also get paid to write and I doubt I would write as much if the money stopped coming in.

I contend that economics is not as complex as economists would have us believe. Prices rise with demand. If supply can’t keep up with demand, prices rise a lot. The reverse is also true and if there is a lack of supply, someone will figure out a way to find more of whatever is lacking in order to get in on the game. Part of my perspective is a result of my work experience. For many years I practiced law and saw first hand how lawyers over-complicate things to serve their own interests. If people can’t understand what a lawyer writes, they have to pay another lawyer to decipher it for them.

One of our regular readers disagrees with me. He says reducing things to phrases that can fit on a bumper sticker leads not to an exchange of information that can lead to progress, but a Balkanization of information that separates us into clans. Here’s an example of a bumper sticker I saw many years ago. “God said it. It’s in the Bible. I believe it. And that settles it!” It seems unlikely that anyone could expect to have an informed discussion with the driver of that car.

We are probably both right. Simplicity is good, but simplistic is bad. Things are seldom all one way or the other. If we all thought alike, the world would be a very dull place.

The Pathway To More Renewables

What has this got to do with renewables? Precisely this. We need more renewable energy and we need it yesterday, but there are barriers that prevent that from happening as quickly as it should. Let’s begin by looking at the highly contentious issue of where to put all those renewables. Opponents suggest to reach the goal of 100% renewable energy, we will need to cut down every forest and destroy every farm. No trees means more global warming and no farms means no food to eat. That would be bad if it were true. But the reality is rather different.

Writing in The Guardian recently, Rebecca Solnit took Bloomberg News to task for reporting that a 200 MW wind farm requires 13 square miles of land while an equivalent gas-fired generating plant would cover just a city block. Let’s unpack that assertion, shall we? First, it assumes (and we all know about the word “assume,” don’t we?) that all that land could not be used for any other purpose while those wind turbines are up there hundreds of feet in the air.

Second, it ignores the infrastructure — the wells, pipelines, pumping stations, and so forth — required to get the methane gas to the generating station. Third, it conveniently ignores the environmental damage caused by drilling for and transporting methane gas and the environmental effects of burning it to make electricity. In other words, while the comparison may be factually correct, it is misleading because it focuses on just one factor in the equation while ignoring others that may actually be far more important.

Renewables & Farming

Image credit: US Department of Energy

One of the most pernicious attacks on renewable energy is that it is an existential threat to the farming community. There are special interest groups, many of them funded in whole or in part by fossil fuel companies, that offer advice on how to oppose solar and wind farm projects. Many support siting and setback restrictions that would make renewables unprofitable and so less likely to be built. Never mind that those same interests are perfectly OK with putting gas wells next door to schools and private homes. They even support legislation barring concerned citizens from objecting under pain of large fines or imprisonment. Hypocrisy is rampant when it comes to fossil fuel companies protecting their investment.

Another significant barrier to renewables is getting them connected to the utility grid, which was constructed to distribute electricity from central hubs, not to handle large amounts flowing in from the margins. A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Lab finds the US will need to build tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines in order to get the renewable energy coming online in the next decade from where it is generated to where it is needed. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab said in a recent report that there are 930 GW of wind and solar capacity and 420 GW of storage projects awaiting approval to connect to the transmission system today. If all those projects got built and connected, the US would be largely free of the curse of fossil fuel generated electricity.

A Simple Solution

Here’s where my propensity to look for simple solutions kicks in. If you read the stories about opposition to renewables, much of it leverages the traditional tension between rural and urban America. People in farm country don’t want to see their way of life disrupted so someone in New York City can have access to zero emissions electricity, and who can blame them?

All politics is local, Tip O’Neill liked to say. If that is true, wouldn’t it make sense to see that the people in those local communities benefit directly from the renewable energy flowing through the wires running over their heads to far distant cities? What if they got to enjoy lower utility bills and stable electricity prices for themselves and their grandkids? Might that change a few minds?

The secret to doing that, of course, is undoing the utility monopoly model that is prevalent in America. Instead of powering Chicago with electricity from Wyoming, let Chicagoans make and store their own electricity and share it with their neighbors using community microgrids. Things have changed since Thomas Edison started the first utility grid. Just because we did things a certain way a hundred years ago doesn’t mean we have to do them that way forever.

At the same time, let’s educate farmers about how they can increase their incomes by combining renewables with farming. Not only is farming hard work, it is unpredictable. Some years produce record harvests while other years threaten farmers with bankruptcy. Having a reliable source of supplementary income could assuage fears about how to pay the loans on all that farming equipment when the lean years come.

Perhaps my ideas are too simplistic — simple minded, even. But simple economics suggests much of the antipathy to renewable energy could be dissipated if the government and developers paid more attention to the needs of the local communities to get buy in at the local level for the renewables America needs to reduce its carbon emissions from the electricity sector.

Rebecca Solnit ends her piece on renewables this way: “The way we have long operated was always destructive, and it’s now a crisis larger than any in human history. Change needs to come, swiftly, and though practical change is crucial, so are changes in imagination, perception and values. The two go together, and they always have.” If rural residents oppose renewables, it’s because they don’t see how they will benefit them personally. That’s where the change has to begin.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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