Building a Green Economy: Green Jobs, Transmission Lines & Microgrids

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transmission-lines-microgrid.jpgImperial County, tucked away in the southeastern corner of California, has long suffered from perennial unemployment rates exceeding 20 percent.

Yet Imperial County is also home to the “crown jewel” of all geothermal steam resources in the U.S., making it a prime spot to showcase how renewable energy can help spur the new green economy so enthusiastically touted by the Obama Administration.

Late December, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved the construction of the $1.9 billion Sunrise PowerLink transmission line, which could send clean electricity from Imperial County to San Diego. However, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the California Supreme Court last January to review this decision, citing San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E) refusal to guarantee that the transmission project would be reserved exclusively for renewable energy resources.

Given that SDG&E is lagging far behind in meeting state mandates to boost renewable energy supplies, the utility’s reluctance to commit itself to renewables was puzzling. Critics fear that SDG&E and its parent Sempra might have perverse motives. Among them: importing dirty power from Baja California, where Sempra co-owns a Liquefied National Gas (LNG) terminal.

Are Enviros Part of the Problem?

When talking about the big picture, environmentalists have always been strong advocates for displacing fossil fuels with renewable energy options. But they often emerge as key adversaries when specific projects are proposed near their favorite parks or other preserved habitats. In this case, they contend the Sunrise transmission line would damage precious habitat and endangered species as it traverses the Cleveland National Forest.

Being a long time environmentalist myself, I can appreciate why many environmentalists might reflexively oppose new transmission lines, even if they connect to renewable energy facilities. But I am also concerned about global climate change and the current economic crisis.

CBD has proposed to invest the $1.9 billion in ratepayer funds to install new solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in San Diego itself, obviating the need to build the Sunrise transmission line at all. Since solar PV installations generate more jobs per dollars invested than any other renewable energy source, that might not seem like a bad idea. But solar PV is also the most expensive of all current supply choices, and PV systems only produce power for 5 to 7 hours per day.

It’s All Good – Geothermal and Solar Power

The result of volcanic activity that traps hot liquids below the earth’s surface, geothermal energy’s main advantage over solar PV is that it can provide round-the-clock electricity that can directly displace that from dirty coal or natural gas power plants. Since geothermal costs less than a third of the cost of solar PV, ratepayers would be getting a better deal with development of geothermal resources in Imperial County rather than with rooftop solar PV in San Diego. As many as 20,000 jobs in Imperial County alone hang in the balance.

The key to making a green economy work is diversity: diversity of renewable supply, diversity in the workforce, and diversity of regions tapped to deliver clean energy. A host of studies all project that California would rank No. 1 in the country in the creation of jobs under a federal program to respond to climate change by expanding reliance upon renewable energy.

But lately, bureaucratic complexity, foot-dragging utilities and the NIMBY syndrome have given California a black eye. Not only did we lose our national lead on wind power to Texas in 2006, but Iowa passed us last year.

Microgrids: The Ultimate Solution?

Ultimately, our power delivery system needs to shift to the local level. A key concept is the “microgrid,” mini-islands of power fueled by distributed solar, wind and Combined Heat & Power (CHP) plants. There are some who say that transmission lines should be our least priority, and in many ways, I side with that argument. I recently spoke with a former San Diego Gas & Electric renewables expert who jumped ship to a new firm focused on microgrids. He argues that microgrids, which can pool smaller distributed resources into a bundle that can be “islanded” during times of grid outages, is a hedging strategy to move forward with renewables while waiting and seeing if any of the proposed transmission lines on the drawing boards ever get built.

While I think the microgrid will be the wave of the future – since they allow us to rely on our own solar PV, small wind turbines, fuel cells and CHP units when the larger grid goes down – this model faces its own resistance from utilities. At present, there is no coherent strategy or program to foster this sort of innovation at the distribution level.

Pushing Forward On All Fronts

The challenges facing us on the energy front are so grave, I think we need to push forward with all options, since politics, economics and unforeseen circumstances tend to derail even the best intentions.

If transmission lines similar to the Sunrise PowerLink are not built soon, California will never meet its global climate change goals or deliver on the promise of green jobs. The CBD lawsuit could put Sunrise on hold for years to come. But it also serves as a reminder that the only way to get buy-in from environmentalists for new transmission lines is to guarantee that these ratepayer investments serve the green economy, and not the vested interests of utilities perhaps looking to line their own pockets.

[photo credit: Flickr]

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11 Comments

  1. You are absolutely right: we wouldn’t have so many problems of pipes and transmission lines ruining natural habitats if we just generated energy locally through combined heat & power. Disclosure: I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that does combined heat & power and waste energy recovery. So I’m not exactly unbiased. But the reason I’m involved in the first place is the massive potential. EPA and DOE estimates suggest there’s enough recoverable waste energy out there to produce 40% of our energy supply — all locally. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions would fall by 20% and costs would actually drop due to increased efficiency. Why aren’t we doing more of this?

    • Because the focus of government is still on utilities, and not on new microgrids that can better integrate and optimize all forms of clean distributed generation and storage. Instead of focusing so much on a large smart “super grid” we should be developing strategies and programs to maximize all indigenous resoures first, and then fill in the rest with large scale renewable energy projects.

  2. We absolutely need to push forward with all options, especially the microgrid strategy. We need to rethink the way energy is generated and distributed. The old way — generating energy at far off power plants and then delivering it long distances to end users — is inefficient and was developed at a time when our our energy needs were much less than they are today. Microgrids on the other hand, provide users with a way to produce and use energy right where they need it, with no need for ugly and enviromentally unfriendly wires and infrastructure. The energy procurement paradigm is shifting and we need to embrace the idea of a hybrid energy economy where power from the grid and power from rewable sources is distributed using efficient, better microgrid tecnologies.

  3. I am in agreement with the general goals of natural resource conservation. I build (near) zero-energy homes, retrofit homes with solar power, and do it all in a state with no real government subsidy to get any of this done, Texas.

    Sadly, the more rabid environmentalists suffer from tunnel vision in an imperfect world. What I mean by this is they fixate on a cause du jour and lose sight of the big picture. Or to be more in-line with the topic of discussion, they can’t see the forest for the tree.

    One interesting aspect of the environmental movement is the conspicuous absence of concern for people who need to make a decent living. And people with real paying jobs have a direct POSITIVE impact on the environment. How you may ask? Look at any location in the world where a significant part of the population don’t have living wage jobs. They devour every little bit of natural resource just to stay alive.

    Sadly, when you get government involved in things it shouldn’t be involved with, you get the results you’re seeing now. Lawsuits, counter-suits, squandered funds/opportunities and tax dollars lining pockets of big business and attorneys while not much gets done. Jobs are lost, business are burdened to the point of leaving or shutting down, incentives to figure out how to operate more cleanly/efficiently are destroyed.

    I say stop pissing on each other and let each individual, company and organization that have the vision, drive and resources to provide marketable solutions to our energy and environmental issues be left alone to do just that. There’s more than one way to make this happen. Instead of regulate, legislate, litigate, lets cooperate and innovate.

    We and future generations, will live the better for it.

  4. Transmission is not the answer.

    Lets first talk about putting solar panels on all of our parking structures, office buildings, schools and homes.

    Why are we trying to pipe energy 123 miles from Imperial Valley when we have plenty of sunshine here?

    Generate the power where it is going to be used.

    Bob B.

    Leucadia

    • I am all for all forms of clean distributed generation — not just solar PV. Diversity is always the key. There is no silver bullet to the climate change crisis.

      We need solar, we need wind, we need geothermal, biomass — and perhaps new forms of ocean energy.

      Imperial County has some of the best renewable resources in the country. I say we build as much as solar PV as we can, but it is the most expensive right now, so we’ll also need geothermal. It is not either/or, but both.

  5. Hello Mr. Asmus

    Thanks for the thought provoking essay. Many of today’s articles on the subject of integrating renewable energy are agenda driven and do not address the issues objectively. The controversies that surround the Sunrise PowerLink are not unique. Rate-payers around the country are being asked to recover the costs of new transmission lines that proponents tout as necessary to deliver renewable resources, however the lack of transparency regarding the proponents other”motives” are perplexing and fuel the distrust of some utilities.

    Noteworthy is your description of “enviros” and “nimbys” as being obstacles to the development of these projects. In todays economic climate, these labels have the insinuation of insult and perpetuate a growing impression that these folks are subjecting the rest of society with the tyranny of their beliefs. The truth is that these terms are designed by so called think tank, pro industry and development advocates to label opponents as fringe. Most of these people are normal, average citizens who question the costs and necessity of ever increasing development they are being told to bear. Being an adversary of local development schemes is not a bad thing… Stewardship starts at home.

    Case in point; “NIMBYS” as being an element to California loosing our “national lead on wind power” to

    Texas and Iowa. Let’s face it those states have much more developable wind. This is not a contest. Wind in California is quite localized, often remote and has significant challenges to balance with the load. Hence the need to build more transmission and the push by certain utilities for much more centralized energy storage. All this drives the prudent question; What are the TOTAL cost to benefit ratio ? Grid expansion needs to perpetuate itself to increase it’s reliability. Kinda viral. When will there ever be enough?

    The micro grid model has it’s detractors, mostly those who believe in centralized generation and transmission. They are legion. Renewable energy could be transformative in that it offers many opportunities for local communities. Distributed generation, coupled with localized storage systems need the regulatory agencies’ thorough and most objective analysis. While the costs of these technologies may currently be higher than centralized RE systems, Rooftop PV for example has seen a continual drop in price while uncertainty with the centralized model promises ever increasing costs. Isn’t the trajectory of these various models worth examining before we nationally invest hundreds of billions of dollars in an approach that will surly be with us for the foreseeable future?

    It is unfortunate that it’s looking like “green” energy is apt only because of the color of the money it makes. There needs to be a reasonable balance here, considering the costs and the impacts.

    Ultimately the question remains, How will it help?

    Ron Dickerson

  6. The return of Cleantuesday in Paris around 2 themes most pointed moment of the Smart Grid (Intelligent Network) and energy efficiency, with 4 leaders Cleantech:

    * Group leader: IBM: Mickael Ohana speak on the theme of the Smart Grid

    * the start-up French: Fludia: Marc vouchers present tools for measuring and controlling energy

    * the start-up French Blu-e: Tanguy Mathon show how the technical expertise, ongoing monitoring and benchmarking of the use of your equipment on your site can reduce its ecological footprint and its costs

    * The Start up U.S. intervene surl BPL Global Smart Grid

    Tuesday, September 8th at 18h30 in the cafeteria, Passage des Panoramas, 151 Rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris

    Registration open

    Do not forget the Cleantuesday PACA September 15 and a Nice Cleantuesday Rhone Alpes September 22 in Grenoble and September 29 in Lyon (see specific sites)

  7. What about generating power from the temperature differential between the surface of the ocean and its depths? I have read this has no carbon footprint and there is certainly plenty of ocean to work with.

    • I recently completed a study on “marine renewables.”

      Ocean thermal technologies are the least efficient, though they can prodcue fresh water.

      Wave and tidal power options are much more promising!

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