Fast Company

Green Energy: Factory Farms or Locavore?

Is the green energy future big or small?

Should the taxpayers and utilities be investing hundreds of billions in new heavy-metal infrastructure to transmit renewable energy to big cities from massive centralized installations in the windy Midwest and the sunny Southwest?

Or does a real green energy future look a lot more locavore, with a patchwork of publicly financed rooftop solar, small-scale wind, microhydropower, wave buoys, biogas and battery power, woven together with sophisticated software management, allowing each region to be self-sufficient?

The answer probably falls somewhere in between. But this is just as much a political debate as a straight-up technical policy question. Basically, existing utilities, which have regional monopolies and make money from transmission as well as generation, want to borrow more money to build thick lines and big green power plants, and then have the public pay it off for years in their electricity bills. State governments like Arizona and Kansas are into this idea too because they want to sell their power to other states.

Yesterday, the folks who control the Midwest grid released a proposal that put the cost of sending Midwestern wind power to Northeast cities at $50 to $80 billion. But Northeasterners aren't so sure this is a great idea. They might buy wind from Canada instead. And the Midwest still produces a lot of coal power too, which the Northeast doesn't want (once you get electrons pumping through the grid, it's hard to separate them out by origin.) Basically, they want local control over future decisions about their regional power mix, which is hard to do once you start investing in huge facilities.

Consumers should have a say in this debate too. Not everyone wants to go off the grid and produce all their own juice. But as we move toward a low-carbon future that relies on multiple, variable energy sources, we should be wary of sinking big capital into single-source projects that look an awful lot like the old "fires and wires" model.

 

Image: A 3KW Micro-hydro-turbine from Run of River Hydro Power.

 

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2 Comments

  • Michael E. Douroux

    Financial Conservation - Relying on the Integrity of Individual Common Sense

    John Muir's long walks through the Sierra Nevada mountain range was an individual, seminal event that began a grassroots groundswell that evolved into the American conservation movement.

    Similarly, the long term solution to the current financial crisis that has enveloped the world will not come from the top down, but rather must begin with a change in perspective at the individual level.

    Fortunately, the individual has a big head start. The basic principles and benefits of conserving our natural resources for current and future generations have, for the most part, entered the collective consciousness. Financial Conservation is a slight broadening in the application of these very same insights to our individual financial resources. Relying on the integrity of individual common sense and bringing awareness to the necessity of "Core Asset Preservation" for the individual to stay in step with the normal life cycles, I believe, is the way forward.

    Additionally, many of the frontline casualties in the massive triage and cost-cutting we see the government and business world applying to this situation are the conservation and humanitarian organizations whose survival depends on financial responsibility. The perspective of Financial Conservation will help to ensure the ongoing funding sources for these vitally important human endeavors.

    Concerned Citizen

  • Ken Smith

    A key element of this discussion is timing. When do we want to start making measurable progress towards energy independence? A Smart Grid will help us be more intelligent about how we use and conserve energy, but it is 10 years and billions of dollars away from mass-market implementation. Off-shore and remote wind farms that promise hundreds/thousands of megawatts of power are also 10 years and billions of dollars away. Only a distributed network of community-scale facilities will help reduce demand on an already over-taxed grid because it generates power where the demand is located. Homes, municipal building, commercial installations, and small utility-scale facilities can generate a large portion of our national demand without causing major upheaval from an environmental or visual impact – and many can be implemented in a short-period of time meeting the ‘shovel ready’ requirement for federal and/or state funding. FastCompany readers understand the analogy, the ‘old’ energy model of major plants run by regulated utilities with power distributed through a grid controlled by quasi governmental agencies is like the Government/conglomerate era mainframe computing; but when a distributed computing model came along and grew into what we now call the Internet the ‘power’ and value it released was orders of magnitude greater for individuals, companies, investors, and society.

    We must immediately focus federal dollars in the form of feed in tariffs, tax credits, and other incentives to building the ‘energy Internet’. We lost 8 years to an administration blind to science – we need bold action. We need to just BUILD BABY BUILD. www.buildbabybuild.net.