More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Fight Over Energy’s Future

The nation is going through as soon as in a era selections about how power should be delivered to houses, companies and electrical vehicles — selections that would form the course of local weather change and decide how the United States copes with wildfires, warmth waves and different excessive climate linked to world warming.

On one aspect, giant electrical utilities and President Biden need to construct hundreds of miles of energy strains to maneuver electrical energy created by distant wind generators and photo voltaic farms to cities and suburbs. On the opposite, some environmental organizations and group teams are pushing for larger funding in rooftop photo voltaic panels, batteries and native wind generators.

There is an intense coverage battle going down in Washington and state capitals concerning the selections that lawmakers, power companies and people make within the subsequent few years, which might lock in an power system that lasts for many years. The divide between those that need extra energy strains and people calling for a extra decentralized power system has cut up the renewable power business and the environmental motion. And it has created partnerships of comfort between fossil gas firms and native teams combating energy strains.

At situation is how rapidly the nation can transfer to cleaner power and the way a lot electrical energy charges will improve.

“You’ve got to have a big national plan to make sure the power gets from where it is generated to where the need is,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in an interview.

But many of Mr. Biden’s liberal allies argue that solar panels, batteries and other local energy sources should be emphasized because they would be more resilient and could be built more quickly.

“We need to build the electricity transmission and distribution system for the grid of the future and not that of the past,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a nonprofit based in Chicago. “Solar energy plus storage is as transformative to the electric sector as wireless services were to the telecommunications sector.”

In all probability, there will be a mix of solutions that include more transmission lines and rooftop solar panels. What combination emerges will depend on deals made in Congress but also skirmishes playing out across the country.

Ms. Granholm said the administration supports rooftop solar and microgrids, systems that allow towns or neighborhoods to generate and use their own electricity. Mr. Biden has proposed a federal investment tax credit for local energy storage projects, for example. But she added that decentralized approaches would not be sufficient to achieve the president’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035.

As millions of California homes went dark during a heat wave last summer, help came from an unusual source: batteries installed at homes, businesses and municipal buildings.

Those batteries kicked in up to 6 percent of the state grid’s power supply during the crisis, helping to make up for idled natural gas and nuclear power plants. Rooftop solar panels generated an additional 4 percent of the state’s electricity.

This outcome — homeowners and businesses helping the grid — would have been unthinkable a decade ago. For more than a century, electricity has flowed one way: from power plants to people.

California showed that homes and businesses don’t have to be passive consumers. They can become mini power plants, potentially earning as much from supplying energy as they pay for electricity they draw from the grid.

Home and business batteries, which can be as small as a large television and as big as a computer server room, are charged from the grid or rooftop solar panels. They release energy after the sun has gone down or during blackouts, which have become more common in recent years.

Some environmentalists argue that greater use of rooftop solar and batteries is becoming more essential because of climate change.

After its gear ignited several large wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting off power on hot and windy days to prevent fires. The company emerged from bankruptcy last year after amassing $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires caused by its equipment, including transmission lines.

Elizabeth Ellenburg, an 87-year-old cancer survivor in Napa, Calif., bought solar panels and a battery from Sunrun in 2019 to keep her refrigerator, oxygen equipment and appliances running during PG&E’s power shut-offs, a plan that she said has worked well.

“Usually, when PG&E goes out it’s not 24 hours — it’s days,” said Ms. Ellenburg, a retired nurse. “I need to have the ability to use medical equipment. To live in my own home, I needed power other than the power company.”

But the utility industry argues that new transmission lines are needed to get to 100 percent clean energy and power electric cars and trucks. Those high costs will be offset by the money saved from switching from fossil fuels to cheaper solar panels and wind turbines, said Emily Sanford Fisher, senior vice president for clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities.

“Just because we’re spending money on more things doesn’t mean we’re not getting benefits on others,” Ms. Fisher said. “I think the problem isn’t that we’re going to build too much transmission, it’s that we’re not going to have enough.”

In February, Texas was paralyzed for more than four days by a deep freeze that shut down power plants and disabled natural gas pipelines. People used cars and grills and even burned furniture to keep warm; at least 150 died.

One reason for the failure was that the state has kept the grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas largely disconnected from the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight. That prevented the state from importing power and makes Texas a case for the interconnected power system that Mr. Biden wants.

Consider Marfa, an artsy town in the Chihuahuan Desert. Residents struggled to stay warm as the ground was blanketed with snow and freezing rain. Yet 75 miles to the west, the lights were on in Van Horn, Texas. That town is served by El Paso Electric, a utility attached to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, a grid that ties together 14 states, two Canadian provinces and a Mexican state.

A more connected national grid could help places struck by disasters draw energy from elsewhere, said Ralph Cavanagh, an official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Mr. Biden agrees. He even called for new power lines during his presidential campaign.

That might have helped him win the support of electric utilities, which typically give bigger campaign contributions to Republicans. During the 2020 election, the industry’s political action committees and its executives gave him $1.4 million, compared with about $1 million to Donald J. Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In Washington, developers of large solar and wind projects are pushing for a more connected grid while utilities want more federal funding for new transmission lines. Advocates for rooftop solar panels and batteries are lobbying Congress for more federal incentives.

Separately, there are pitched battles going on in state capitals over how much utilities must pay homeowners for the electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. Utilities in California, Florida and elsewhere want lawmakers to reduce those rates. Homeowners with solar panels and renewable energy groups are fighting those efforts.

Despite Mr. Biden’s support, the utility industry could struggle to add power lines.

Many Americans resist transmission lines for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Powerful economic interests are also at play. In Maine, for instance, a campaign is underway to stop a 145-mile line that will bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.

New England has phased out coal but still uses natural gas. Lawmakers are hoping to change that with the help of the $1 billion line, called the New England Clean Energy Connect.

This spring, workmen cleared trees and installed steel poles in the forests of western Maine. First proposed a decade ago, the project was supposed to cut through New Hampshire until the state rejected it. Federal and state regulators have signed off on the Maine route, which is sponsored by Central Maine Power and HydroQuebec.

But the project is mired in lawsuits, and Maine residents could block it through a November ballot measure.

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