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Should energy go local?

There are many problems associated with retooling how America obtains its energy, more specifically, how it is generated and transmitted to the consumer. Obama is faced with some energy decisions that will affect the shape of the country indefinitely.

We created a vast federal highway system that only created suburbia, and more cars, more development, and more “stuff”. The question is: should energy be generated and distributed locally? Or should it follow the same ethos of our current energy infrastructure and build a large energy “back bone” across the country to distribute energy from mega-sources?

These very questions arose in the state of Minnesota. Regulators were considering the construction of new power lines that connected with proposed solar farms in the Dakotas at a cost of $1.7 billion. The thought of all that copper wire and disrupted landscapes makes my head spin. Of course, wind energy investors like T. Boone Pickens were delighted by this prospect, as if his life depends on socking away another billion this year hiding under the cloak of “going green”.

Thankfully, the Minnesota regulators took a step backward and looked at the issue from a different angle. Considering that in modes of bulk transmission around 7% of the energy is lost, and the unbelievable cost of the project, the regulators found a more simple and economic solution. They decided to develop a bunch of small 10-40 megawatt wind farms located within the state, producing about 600 megawatts and able to use their existing grid system.

This model poses an interesting solution to the energy woes in America. Perhaps we have been thinking about energy in the wrong way with large projects that are located in rural areas. We are in the habit of pushing the most unsightly and polluting aspects of urban life into rural or wilderness areas, which raises many social and environmental justice issues. We are not shy about building coal-fired power plants on sovereign Native American lands, while they live without power and sometimes no running water.

In Arizona, for example, it would seem reasonable to build a large solar facility, like the one being constructed south of the Phoenix metro area. It would create jobs and provide a clean source of energy. But on what land is it being built, and how far away is it from the consumer? Conversely, it would also be possible to place those panels on rooftops, so that the citizen has direct access to their energy, almost wirelessly. In this scenario, little to no energy is lost in transmission, and precious metals do not have to be mined from the ground to construct the proposed gargantuan transmission lines. In addition, local economies benefit directly as jobs are created, and not in another state or region.

Although the Minnesota model transcends scale in a way, it is important to acknowledge that this model does not apply to every situation. Some localities, and even some states, do not have the climate or geological conditions conducive to small-scale (or even large scale) renewable energy sources. But overall, the United States has hit the lottery in potential for renewable energy. We have a wide variety of renewable energy potentials. Pushing for our energy to be in the complete control of local entities, or more desirably at the personal level, is a scary thought for many government agencies and energy companies. Imagine taking away the power (social that is) from these companies to operate energy monopolies. There is of course no end of political resistance to such a scenario.

The prospect of the people having the power and not corporate or government interests is heart warming. It is important to resist these pervasive neoliberal agendas. We do not have to commoditise everything, and we do not have to profit from everything. We all have the right to gaze up at the Sun and absorb its benefits.

Colin J. Gardner
A World to Win’s US correspondent
16 April 2009

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