Smart grids and dumb power lines

Back in the 1970s, a young college professor named Paul Wellstone joined the battle against a high voltage power line in rural Minnesota. He and fellow professor and activist Barry M. Casper later wrote Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War. That war, and the battles over power lines continue, with the latest MN Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ruling last week allowing yet another power line to march across Minnesota.

The Emperor’s Old Clothes

Today’s battle in Minnesota centers on two giant power line proposals, ITC’s “Green Power Express” and Xcel’s CapX 2020. They both claim the cloak of green energy, but it’s long past time for public officials to recognize that these particular emperors are not wearing any clothes. Here’s why:

First, the power companies boast that the new, giant power lines will carry renewable, green energy. The catch: they are not required to do so. Most electricity in this country is generated by burning coal, so that’s what is most likely to move over the new “dumb” power lines.

Second, they claim that new transmission lines are needed because the nation needs more electricity. That’s not true either. According to NPR, which has just completed a 10-part series on “Electricity in America:”

Power companies are planning to beef up the nation’s electricity transmission grid. At the same time, conservationists are trying to reduce the vast amount of power wasted in Americans’ homes and offices. That raises a question: If we simply used energy more efficiently, would we need to spend billions of dollars on a new grid?

NPR quotes Revis James, who works for the industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute, who assures us that demand for electricity inevitably will keep on growing. It fails to mention that U.S. Department of Energy figures show that national electricity use is already falling — by more than two percent in January 2009 compared to January 2008, marking the sixth consecutive month of falling electricity use. Instead,

Xcel and ITC claim that CapX 2020 in southern MN and the “Green Power Express” across the northern part of the state will transport green energy from Midwestern states to the supposedly power-starved states east of here, which lack any wind, solar or geothermal resources. Never mind that Chicago — one of the supposed beneficiaries — is well-known as “the Windy City.” Never mind that a recent study shows that “at least half of the fifty states could meet all their internal energy needs from renewable energy generated inside their borders, and the vast majority could meet a significant percentage.” In fact, says the study:

However, while significant variations in renewable energy among states exist; in most cases, when transmission or transportation costs are taken into account, the net cost variations are quite modest. Homegrown energy is almost always cheaper than imports, especially when you factor in social, environmental and economic benefits.

Smart Grids and Smart Meters

There are other, better ways to power the nation. The two best directions — increasing energy conservation and encouraging local ownership of local renewable energy projects — do not generate large profits for utility companies.

Smart grids and smart electric meters give consumers more information as a means reducing peak demand and overall energy use. The Washington Post reports:

Smart grid refers to an array of switches, sensors and computer chips that will be installed at various stages in the energy-delivery process — in power stations, in electricity meters, in clothes dryers — in the next two decades, if the vision holds and the technology works.

To flatten spikes in demand, smart meters will tell users when power is cheaper, in case they want to run dishwashers and dryers when it costs less. For customers who agree ahead of time, the meters can do the calculations and start the appliances automatically.

NPR’s series reports on both business and individual consumers dramatically cutting their electricity consumption through the use of smart technology. A business example comes from the home of the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, which “should use about half the electricity of a conventional office.”

For a personal consumer’s point of view, NPR turns to Tammy Yeakel in Pennsylvania:

When PPL installed a smart meter on Tammy Yeakel’s Pennsylvania home, she cut her electric bills by 20% reported NPR.

“This is one of my favorite things,” Yeakel says, reading from the computer screen. “How does my home compare to similar homes in my area? And I’m always about $120 less than everybody. So that’s kind of neat. That’s like vacation.”

Tom Stathos from PPL explains that the meters go hand-in-hand with the company’s website, which explains how to cut electricity consumption:

“It’s not a matter of doing without — it’s just a matter of making smart choices,” he says. “The meter is the absolute direct connection with the customer. So this is definitely the start of a smart grid,” Stathos says. With information from the smart meters, PPL is launching a new pricing program. It’s offering two rates — one during times of peak energy use, and a cheaper, off-peak price. The company hopes this encourages customers to use less power when electricity is priciest. And Stathos says that’s just a beginning.

The Obama administration wants to use stimulus money to help install smart meters and promote a smart grid.

Keeping Energy Local

According to George Crocker, Executive Director of the North American Water Office (NAWO), a non-profit organization that has worked on energy issues for more than 25 years:

The old way of doing business was to hook up a few very large central station power plants, mostly coal and nuclear, to high voltage powerlines to serve energy consumers in distant cities. The new way, as this study documents, is to serve those same energy consumers by strategically locating smaller locally owned dispersed renewable energy facilities.

One way to encourage local development of renewable energy projects is through a feed-in tariff, “a price for renewable energy high enough to attract investors without being so high it generates windfall profits.”

According to the “Institute for Local Self Reliance:

Denmark and Germany both used a feed-in tariff to drive renewable electricity generators to more than 15 percent market share. This policy also resulted in large-scale local ownership, with near half of German wind turbines and over 80 percent of Danish ones owned by the residents of the region.

Power Companies and Power Lines

Meanwhile, power companies keep pushing forward with plans to spend billions of dollars on hundreds of miles of power lines. Public utility commissions, including the Minnesota PUC, are still giving them almost everything they ask for.

We are on the hook for this boondoggle. The people who live under or near the power lines pay the highest price, as their land is taken and their e As consumers of electricity, we pay for the new power lines through higher rates. As taxpayers, we pay directly for subsidies for construction.

1 Comment

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One response to “Smart grids and dumb power lines

  1. Sundog

    Well, I’m not exactly sure where to start, Mary. You’ve pieced together a bunch of stuff… and I was with you through most of it… but you ended up in the exact wrong spot.

    First of all… it’s just silly for anyone to think that electricity use is actually falling. Apart from the economic downturn, which will end over the course of the next year, electricity use continues to rise. We all have more tv’s than we used to, more computers than we used to, etc. So, if you’re basing any of your analysis on electricity use since, say September of last year, you’re going to end up in the wrong place.

    Similarly, George and ILSR guys are right, to a point. Dispersed generation technology is getting better and more cost-effective. But we’re still a decade or more away from that having any real effect. We don’t have paradigm shifts over night in the energy business… gradual, incremental progress is the name of the game here.

    That’s where the CapX2020 opponents went awry. Those CapX lines are needed to meet mid and long term load growth under any feasible economic/technological conditions. There wasn’t any way to prove they weren’t needed, because the facts were entirely compelling and determinative.

    Instead of fighting those facts, the CapX opponents needed to use this opportunity to push progress in the right direction, toward more DG… our utilities are doing all they feasibly can on energy efficiency — Minnesota has the most stringent energy efficiency and renewable requirements in the country. But utilities need some help understanding and preparing for the coming DG future. George and ILSR guys missed an opportunity, by focusing on the wrong things — trying to get the MPUC to deny lines that were easily proven to be needed, and pushing a tremendously silly feed in tariff proposal at the Capitol. Their hearts were in the right place, but their strategies were terrible.

    Another place you went off-track in your piece is by lumping the CapX lines together with the Green Power Express. That’s a fundamental mistake. The CapX lines are needed for basic reliability and load serving capability; they’ve been studied up the wazoo by national, regional and local transmission engineers; a coalition of 11 utilities in Minnesota have decided they need to cooperate and make sure we get the right infrastructure built, rather than fight with each other and get a bunch of the wrong things built.

    The Green Power Express has none of those characteristics. It’s a wild-eyed proposal by a single transmission entity…. it hasn’t had nearly the same level of scrutiny, and will be a much different initiative once it’s gone through the gauntlet that the CapX lines have (if it makes it through at all).


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