The U.S. energy system is just like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Every piece has to be in place to look right. Some pieces are more important because they seem to hold others in place. All pieces need to be exact or the puzzle doesn’t work.
That’s my major takeaway after four years – 648 columns about energy on this site.
Certain lessons stand out.
Power is more than generation
So many energy headlines are about solar or wind power. But that’s not the whole story. A big issue is casting a shadow over our entire energy security – transmission and distribution.
“In its 2021 Report Card For America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a C– grade to the energy sector. The report warned that a ‘majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components over a century old — far past their 50-year life expectancy — and others, including 70% of transmission and distribution lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans.’” (Source) (My column above right)
No one can use power that cannot be transported. Transmission and distribution are not the sexy part of the energy system, and don’t get the attention they deserve. (My column, right) We now have challenges not just in the physical upgrading of the grid, but the legal side of rights of way at a time of more contentious public and special interests.
Technology outruns implementation
I wrote about consumers’ expectations from utilities a while ago, image left. We need a faster way to test technology and either adopt it or discard it. I am a big fan of pilot tests. Succeed or fail early.
Implementing a logical electric vehicle charging network comes to mind. There are spots with major advancements:
- Starbucks, Volvo Plan Multistate EV Charging Network
- Apple Maps EV routing is now available for the Ford Mustang Mach-E
- Governments task procurement officers to lead the way in EV charging infrastructure
These are initiatives – puzzle pieces, for now. Worthy projects, the right steps. The big picture is missing, though. They fit when we determine how technology can scale beyond a handful of geographies and companies. That is a human planning issue, not a tech barrier.
NIMBY is Nimble
The “Not in My Backyard” tradition against traditional energy facilities has a new target – renewables. Really, carbon-free, earth-friendly energy sources.
Earth-friendly, but not neighborhood friendly to some, according to NIMBYists. Technology is beside the point. Even Sierra Club’s magazine pointed out, “In Vermont—as elsewhere in the nation—you can’t underestimate the power of people not wanting to look at something and having the means to make the problem go away.”
Looks like the clash of NIMBY and renewables will continue because clean energy sources are growing. “Activity is expanding exponentially in next-generation technologies. For example, energy industry stakeholders are looking to integrate more wind and solar into the electric grid. Private investment and pilot projects combined with federal research support is expediting commercialization of emerging technologies…” (Source) (image right)
This clash scrambles what we typically know as left or right, green or pro-development, rich or poor, young or old. It is all new, not getting better, and sometimes the cause is a ruse versus the real issue. “But using these issues as an excuse to scuttle the transition to green energy only exacerbates the problems they’re concerned about,” says an opinion piece in Bloomberg.
Climate and energy issues are bigger than us all and need transparent dialogue.
Local moves faster than national
States can incubate energy ideas for other states to adopt. They are less caught in the quagmire of bureaucracy. Innovative ideas being hatched in different states can be adopted elsewhere:
- California shading canals with solar panels for energy and to reduce evaporation
- Wyoming making big steps in carbon-free nuclear (right)
- Seeing how Gulf Power made massive strides in reliability and renewable energy (and here, too)
- A successful agrivoltaics operation in Colorado
Small projects can breed big ideas.
Indiana shows how states can be agile. Senate Bill 411, just passed, sets up community standards for citing renewable projects. Here’s the news: It was supported by environmental groups, business, Indiana Association of Counties, Farm Bureau, and Indiana Economic Development Commission. The voluntary standards help places be certified as “renewable ready,” a balanced approach. (Indy Star, above left)
What makes this Indiana approach especially good? It shows that Indiana is a place where people can be smart and agreeable; issues can be managed in a constructive way. Helps everyone. This is a win of practical people versus bureaucracy and standing still.
Political sense alone rarely equates to technical or consumer sense
Early on this site I explored the consumer and energy expertise side of the state-owned South Carolina power utility, the money its consumers owed, and the opportunity it had to onboard real power industry finesse. Policymakers opted instead to maintain customer debt and, in my way of thinking, kneecap its energy future for the sake of political redistricting and keeping their offices. Done deal without any basis of energy logic.
Texas comes to mind, too. The well-known 2021 deep freeze was a result of the technology that policymakers requested. They wanted the cheapest possible power system. They got it. I wrote about it. (image right) My dad, an industrial salesman, had a business card with a saying: “Buying from me is just like buying oats. If you want high-quality oats, you pay a fair price. If you want oats that have already been through a horse, I can get those cheaper for you.”
Consumers need a high-quality power system. Too much is at stake not to.
If you are a fan of jigsaw puzzles you probably have experienced this – the puzzle is put together faster when there are more eyes on the pieces and people coordinate their efforts. More brains, more thinking.
Same way with our energy system. We are at a point where we need everyone’s attention to decarbonize our grid, update and harden the grid for the future, and tap the companies and researchers who know how to scale energy ideas.