America deserves clean, alternative energy. So where is it?

 In Electric Utility

Dreaming of Alternative Energy

In 1901, Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla outlined his plans for wireless distribution of clean, free energy. His Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island was but the first structure built to test his idyllic system upon a planned utopian community called Radio City. Alas financier J.P. Morgan pulled the plug on Tesla’s dream, concerned that energy consumption should not be free for the masses.

Today we’re not too hopeful for “free” energy, but can we at least get it “cleaner?” The U.S. is still merrily chugging along on antiquated fossil fuels, exploiting all available resources in order to sustain an inherently unsustainable energy source. Why?

Meanwhile, America relies on what was once considered the “greatest engineering achievement of the 20th Century,” our national electrical grid. It consists of three massive interconnections forming a giant high-voltage cobweb. Combined, the grid runs 200,000 miles of power lines, plus another 5.5 million of local ones linking plants to substations to consumers.

And it’s completely unsustainable.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “65% of utility-scale electricity generation in the United States was produced from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), about 20% was from nuclear energy…” In other words, we use predominantly unsustainable energy to run an inherently unsustainable grid.

Waiting in the Wings

Yet the solution to the problem has been at hand for years. Modern, clean energy sources exist, waiting to be fully harnessed. That is slowly changing, though. Global governments, once having merely paid lip service to the alternative sources of energy, are at last making the necessary transitions to offer cleaner energy to consumers.

Apart from improving energy efficiency in general, alternative methods include utilizing rechargeable batteries and electric automobiles, developing better solar energy techniques, wind and hydropower, and incorporating microgrids.

A plethora of studies and projects done by companies or cities have showcased the effectiveness of such alternative energy sources and the reasons to invest in them. They have also demonstrated how decentralised renewables can open new doors to new energy markets.

The Hawaiian island of Maui, keenly aware of their overreliance on fossil fuels, initiated its own Smart Grid Project, to harness the unpredictable power of their wind, the abundant sunshine, and even biomass and waste-to-energy.

The Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, is a successful pilot program aimed at developing its own smart grid. For a state as independent as Texas, this is no surprise, despite the fact that Texas is also home to petroleum and gas supermajors, aka “Big Oil.”

Not every project has been as fruitful as Pecan Street, but even failures provide many lessons to learn from. SmartGridCity in Boulder, Colorado, attempted a similar feat (but ultimately couldn’t deliver on its promises, due to lack of experience with the new technologies they were dealing with. SmartGridCity, run by Xcel, admitted as much.)

Advantages of Going Clean

As far as benefits to the environment and cost savings associated with alternative energy innovation, consider that natural gas and wind are “the lowest-cost technology options for new electricity generation across much of the U.S. when cost, public health impacts and environmental effects are considered,” as claimed by the University of Texas at Austin.

Meanwhile, in New York, their Public Service Commission has been working hard to determine exactly how they can incentivize and “compensate” distributed energy producers.  Their plan culminated in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative, the purpose of which is “to build a cleaner, more efficient, customer-centric electric system.” The Democratic Cuomo isn’t shy; his site states plainly that “Climate change mitigation is a global priority,” obviously and squarely placing the blame on fossil fuels. It goes on to to point out that “Renewable energy resources cost less than ever before.”

But what does all this mean for the end consumer? What are the particular benefits to individuals in our own lives?

For starters, think of the jobs created in an entirely new energy sector. There will still be jobs for those in traditional fossil fuels; the transition won’t be overnight. Many workers can simply take additional training and be prepared for the switches involved, thus avoiding layoffs. As the New York Times recently noted in their article, “What’s Up in Coal Country: Alternative Energy Jobs,” miners are now making the shift to becoming wind tower workers and solar panel installers.

The fact is, renewable energy is the future; it’s only a matter of time, and those who continue to cling to outmoded ways will have a negative job outlook if they do not make preparations.

More and more consumers are becoming “grid defectors,” as pointed out in a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute. And as “solar power and energy storage” edge closer to the “right” price point for everyone, there will be a sudden tipping point and an exodus from the electricity grid. Thus, utilities affected by this pending defection must face facts and begin to restructure their business models if they want to stay relevant in the changing world to come.

Then there’s the so-called “social cost of carbon,” or SC-Co2, which provides two points of data: in dollars, it gives “the long-term damage done by a ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in a given year,” and, also in dollars, it “represents the value of damages avoided for a small emission reduction (i.e., the benefit of a CO2 reduction).”

Put another way, SC-Co2 is “the estimated future economic loss caused by emitting 1 metric ton (2,204 lb, or 1,000 kg) of carbon today.” Statistics vary significantly o the SC-Co2, but the bottom line is that there’s a long-term cost savings to reducing carbon use immediately. The sooner it stops, the faster the money is saved; the longer we wait, the further the cost rises.

The Future Waits for No One…Not Even Us

American is literally behind the power curve. In Europe, cities like Stockholm have a clear plan in place to be “fossil-fuel free” in just over 20 years from now. The German city of Frankfurt expects the same by 2050.

Around the globe, “alternative energy” is not so “alternative” anymore. The sources are becoming primary, as they should be for they offer the solution to our energy woes. There is much work to be done and challenges to overcome. But as fuel cells and microgrids become the norm, “reliable, cost-competitive and clean energy” become the new buzzwords. These technologies no longer reside in the realm of futuristic science fiction. FuelCell Energy is one company of many striving to ensure these technologies are “winning a place within the increasingly decentralized US energy system.”

Right above us our neighbor Canada has witnessed the benefits of transitioning to renewable, while acknowledging the “challenges for all stakeholders (utilities, independent power producers, governments, regulators, manufacturers and housing industry).” Through energy science and technology funding, Natural Resources Canada is tackling the myriad barriers to implementation in order to integrate clean power to their own grid.

Meanwhile, we can stand in awe at countries such as Norway, which is already virtually completely free from fossil fuels, with an astounding “98 percent of the electricity production” obtained by renewable energy sources, mainly hydropower.

There are no longer any valid excuses. The time is ripe to push once and for all for comprehensive changes to the way America creates and uses energy.

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