New study says “going local” the best energy option

Local energy tastes better!

Local energy tastes better!

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 powering this thing come from?”

Maybe he should have.

The nation may be able to achieve a significant degree of energy independence by harnessing the most decentralized of all renewable resources: solar energy. (ILSR report)

At least some of that electricity 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 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.

But, to state the obvious: electricity isn’t cherries. So does it matter that this electricity began life 1,00o 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 37-page report shows why “local energy” matters and then looks at the renewable energy potential of each state.

It concludes:

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 New Rules Project is part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a Minnesota-based organization that has advocated “going local” on a wide swath of issues since 1974.

ILSR-pie-chartThe 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.

Local Energy Tastes Better

Admittedly, the authors do not actually make that claim for locally produced energy. But they do make several good arguments for their premise. These include:

  • The cost of hardware

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

Unlike cherries, electricity doesn’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 send electricity 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.)

  • Environmental costs

Another of Commoner’s laws helps us here: “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.

  • Line loss

As electricity streams through a power line a small fraction of energy 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.

  • Jobs

The reports takes an in-depth look at the how decentralized power creates more jobs — and in more places — than does centralized power.

  • Renewable Energy Policy

There were cheers from climate policy experts and renewable energy activists in September when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger mandated a change in that state’s renewable energy portfolio — committing California get a third of all its electric power from renewable sources by 2020 — the highest level in the shortest time of any state.

But some critics raised the likely negative consequences from a mandate allowing California to purchase renewable electricity from outside its own borders.

“This is not good news for Oregon and Washington,” wrote Dawn Stover, in response to an uncritical article published in The Phoenix Sun. Stover, a science writer who serves on several technical advisory committees for wind projects in Washington state, continued:

“California is already consuming 80% of the wind energy made in the Northwest, which leaves me wondering what will happen when Oregon and Washington phase in their own renewable portfolio requirements. The California Energy Commission is proposing to construct a huge new transmission “collector” line to Oregon, and it’s a one-way highway…”

It’s great that California is moving to a renewable energy economy. But it would be far better for other states, concludes the report, if they did so by meeting their energy needs from the abundant resources inside their borders.

Working to Our Energy Potential

The largest section of the report — and the most valuable — is the collection of maps showing the percentage of each state’s electrical needs that could be met by renewable energy sources. For example, the map below shows the potential for each state to become self sufficient using only rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.

In-state solar potential, (New Rules Project)

In-state solar potential, (New Rules Project)

California leads the nation in solar potential — able to generate over half its electrical needs by solar PV alone. Which raises an obvious question: Would Californians (and residents of neighboring states) be better served by a policy aimed at producing one half of the state’s electrical needs from in-state solar PV — rather than the current mandate of getting one-third of its electricity from renewable resource — even if they are located 1,000 miles away in another state? And since government is largely about balancing competing interests, shouldn’t part of our energy discussion focus on who benefits from the more centralized system and who would benefit from a more decentralized one?

The Big Picture

Of the many maps in this study, the one below is arguably the most important.

All renewable sources

As a resident of Arizona, it’s surprising (and a little sobering) 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.

Click to download report

Click to download report

You can download a copy of the complete report by clicking on the cover to the right. I hope you do, and that you make sure your elected representatives at both state and federal levels have a copy, too. I can’t think of a facet of the energy debate as important as local generation of electricity, that has been so completely ignored by policy makers, activists or the media (I count The Phoenix Sun among the guilty parties).

But the positives here far outweigh any negatives from past neglect.

This report documents the possibility that switching to a renewable energy economy can be made faster, at a lower cost and to the economic benefit of states and to individuals in terms of job creation.

The authors of “Energy Self-Reliant States” sum up the potential very well:

“This report provides compelling evidence that if states retain their authority, energy self-reliance is within their grasp.”

You can visit the Website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, here.

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3 thoughts on “New study says “going local” the best energy option

  1. Very interesting piece, Osha! As an Idaho native, I found myself having a sort of default Pacific NW reaction to the prospect of of NW-generated electricity being diverted to California – i.e., California is always trying to steal our stuff – this includes both water and power. The PNW has long jealously clenched the Bonneville Power Administration close to the vest and resisted Bush era attempts to meld it in with the national grid.

    Personally, I’d like to see home energy installations as cheap, low-maintenance & easy to install as a water heater or a gas furnace. That would be hyper-local generation. Or have neighborhood “substations” with small windmills, solar panels, big batteries, biogas, whatever – that could serve a territory about the size of an elementary school feeder neighborhood. This would help us consumers wean ourselves from our rather feudal relationship with energy, transportation & communications corporations. Seems to me consumers & small businesses would benefit from decentralization and large companies already benefit from centralization.

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