Why We Need a “Local Energy” movement

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When author Michael Pollan spoke at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in mid-October, it’s a safe bet his hosts didn’t offer fresh cherries to the “local foods” advocate. As a locavore — someone who tries to eat only food grown within a 100-mile radius of them — Pollan would have likely reacted to cherries like a vampire reacts to garlic. At this time of year, any fresh cherries in northern California would most likely have come from orchards in Chile, roughly 6,000 miles to the southeast.

Yet, when Pollan was handed the microphone he probably did not turn to David Wehner, Dean of the college hosting the event, and ask, “By the way, Dean – Where did the electricity electrons  powering this thing come from?”

Maybe he should have.

At least some of that electricity those electrons had just completed a 1,000 mile journey. The energy was converted from wind to electricity at the Klondike generating facility just south of the Washington-Oregon border. The electricity electrons traveled over power lines down the entire state of Oregon, then traversing three-quarters of the length of California to arrive at the microphone in Pollan’s hand at Cal Poly.

Graphic by Osha Gray Davidson

But, to state the obvious: electricity is electrons are not cherries.

So, does it matter that this electricity particular electrons began life 1,000 miles from the microphone it powered? That question is at the heart of the report, “Energy Self-Reliant States,” published in October by the New Rules Project. The report shows why “local energy” matters and then looks at the renewable energy potential of each state.

Among the reports’ most important findings:

“All 36 states with either renewable energy goals … or mandates could meet them by relying on in-state renewable fuels. Sixty-four percent could be self sufficient in electricity from in-state renewables; another 14 percent could generate 75 percent of their electricity from homegrown fuels.

“Indeed, the nation may be able to achieve a significant degree of energy independence by harnessing the most decentralized of all renewable resources: solar energy. More than 40 states plus the District of Columbia could generate 25 percent of their electricity just with rooftop PV.”

The report, while necessarily a bit wonkish, is actually quite readable. The authors do a particularly good job in providing the right amount of background on “local energy” without overburdening us with too much detail. For example, I hadn’t realized that centralized energy production is a relatively recent development in a our national history. In 1900, 60 percent of electricity was still produced on-site — only to drop to 20 percent, just three decades later.

The study finds several benefits to “going local.”

The first deals with “hardware.”

Barry Commoner’s 4th law of ecology applies here: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Unlike cherries, electricity doesn’t electrons don’t need to be shipped in crates on freighters, trucks or trains. But that doesn’t mean that getting electricity from Oregon to California is free. It isn’t. Some of the costs are easy to total, such as building and maintaining transmission lines. Writing in the New York Times last February, a Massachusetts state official estimated the cost at between $2-$10 million per mile.

Assuming a midpoint of $6 million dollars, the upfront cost of installing the “hardware” to ship electricity electrons from the Klondike wind farm to Michael Pollan’s microphone is $6 billion. Most of that infrastructure already exists. The point remains, however, that any new construction to move energy long distances has a significant price tag. (And while this should be obvious, it needs to be said: When it comes to hardware, there is no discount for shipping electricity produced by environmentally friendly, renewable sources. Even to the transmission lines of smart grids all electricity looks alike. one electron looks just like another. Not so smart, huh?)

There are, of course, sound environmental reasons involved. Another of Commoner’s laws applies: “Everything must go somewhere.”

Transmission lines require large towers and sometimes, new substations. Siting is a contentious issue because most people do not want these massive towers and electrical lines passing through their property or across beautiful landscapes. More direct harm can come from building towers on land that is home to species already threatened with extinction. While there are significant monetary costs associated with the siting process, the cost discussed here is not monetary. It’s the impact the electrical infrastructure has on the environment as a whole.

Then there’s something called “line loss.” As electricity electrons streams through a power line a small fraction of it is lost to various factors. The longer the distance the greater the loss. From the ILSA report:

“For example, if Ohio’s electricity came from North Dakota wind farms – 1,000 miles away – the cost of constructing new transmission lines to carry that power and the electricity losses during transmission could result in an electricity cost to the customer that is about the same, or higher, than local generation with minimal transmission upgrades.”

That’s one advantage to PV rooftop panels. In the few yards between the panels and the wall socket in your house, the amount of electricity lost through transmission is effectively zero.

There’s lots more to this report, but it’s probably best to post what is probably the study’s most important map and refer readers on sites with more information.

Graphic by Osha Gray Davidson

As an Arizonan, I’m surprised (and a little sobered) to realize that we’re the only state west of the Missouri that lacks the potential for complete renewable energy independence. On the other hand, we could derive three-quarters of all our energy from carbon-free, renewable sources from within our borders. In fact, only five states fall under the 30% line, which I find a pretty remarkable fact.

You can download a pdf copy of the report, here. There’s also a good piece on the study at the NYT Green Inc., site, here. And, finally, I write on the report in a bit more detail over at my own site, The Phoenix Sun, here.


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