The future of renewable energy in the west

Maia Welbel

Why haven’t we fully embraced renewable energy?

In April of 2021, President Biden announced a new target for the U.S. to achieve a 50-52 percent reduction from 2005 greenhouse gas levels by 2030. After officially rejoining the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in February, and committing the U.S. to reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050, this plan offers an intermediate step for mitigating pollution from “electricity, transportation, buildings, industry, and lands.”

Fossil fuel combustion for energy currently accounts for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. So achieving the climate friendly economy posed in Biden’s plan will require a major shift away from petroleum, coal, and natural gas, in favor of renewable energy sources.

The main barrier to nationwide use of clean energy, it turns out, isn’t in producing enough of the energy itself, but the transport of that energy from production plants to the people who will use it. The U.S. is actually doing great at generating renewable energy. 2020 marked the first year that renewables like solar, wind, and hydropower accounted for the largest portion of new generating capacity. And in 2019, wind energy projects on private land provided $706 million in land lease payments to rural landowners. Unfortunately, the potential for all that power to replace its fossil fuel counterpart is being stymied by an egregiously outdated transmission grid.

The grid isn’t equipped for this

An important difference between fossil fuel based power plants and renewable ones, is that renewables usually need to be placed in a specific geographically appropriate area. The sites of fossil fuel plants were chosen based on their proximity to energy users — to minimize and optimize transport distance. Wind energy, for example, can’t be sourced that way because the production site needs to be somewhere with enough consistent wind. Solar farms need to be in regions with plenty of sunlight.

The strongest and most accessible renewable energy resources are located on the Great Plainsspecifically the 15 states between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. This region accounts for 88% of the country’s wind power potential and 56% of the country’s solar power potential. However, people living on the Great Plains make up only 30% of the country’s electricity demand. Our existing power grid wasn’t designed to transport that much power across that much distance. In fact, we’re already seeing the effects of an electrical system built in the early to mid 1900s straining to meet the demands of a 21st century world.

From 2015 to 2020, the number of annual blackouts in the U.S. doubled. The heat wave that struck large swaths of the country throughout summer 2021 left millions of people without electricity amidst dangerously soaring temperatures. We know that climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and more severe, and our fossil fuel dependent, outdated electric grid is giving the one-two punch of worsening climate projections and failure to contend with the consequences.

What even is “the grid”?

The U.S. currently uses a system of three major grids to transport energy to all of its constituents: the Eastern Interconnection, which encompasses the area east of the Rockies and a portion of northern Texas; the Western Interconnection, which encompasses the area from the Rockies west; and The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which covers most of Texas. Taken as a single entity, the U.S. electrical grid is the largest interconnected machine on Earth, with 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines. Despite its vast proliferation, it cannot support a massive shift to low-carbon power — a transition we unquestionably have to make to prevent climate catastrophe.

A matter of logistics

Transmission lines carry electricity from power plants to users, and sometimes they become too congested (“curtailment” in energy-speak), so wind and solar equipment just stops operating. Amending this would mean building out newer, higher capacity lines all across the country. The president has proposed a $73 billion improvement plan including thousands of miles of new transmission lines to expand renewable energy. But research shows the number would have to grow to about $2.5 trillion to get us to net zero by 2050. That kind of spending is a hard sell for politicians concerned with short term returns on investment, but when the risk of not investing is an unlivable climate, it seems it’s the only rational choice.

Unlike installing coal pipelines — a process streamlined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — building new power lines requires the approval of multiple state and local agencies in every state it passes through, in addition to that of all of the private landowners whose property would be affected. Power lines might threaten farming operations, environmentally sensitive areas, or sites of cultural significance. Plus they are huge and aesthetically imposing, so often incite local organizing against their construction.

Because of this logistical quagmire, fewer than a quarter of proposed renewable energy projects actually make it to commercial operation. The rest are withdrawn.

How do we solve this?

Although the hurdles facing renewable energy are complex and expensive, they are not insurmountable with enough buy-in from policymakers and landowners. The benefits of clean energy are abundant in both the short and long term.

Bloomberg reports that dramatically reducing fossil fuel consumption by investing in renewable energy could keep energy costs below 6% of gross domestic product through 2050. That figure is “much lower than historical levels” largely because it eliminates oil-price volatility as a complicating factor. Job losses incurred from cutting oil and gas use would be “more than offset by new opportunities, especially in construction and installing wind and solar power.” Then of course, there is the matter of clean energy being one of our only favorable strategies for preventing total breakdown of the planet we call home.

There are some sure-fire placement options for these new lines, including already disturbed land like railroads and highways. For more disruptive build-outs, people impacted will have to be compensated fairly and given any resources they need to maintain prosperous livelihoods.

Ultimately, the national conversation about land use and resource allocation for the transition to a net zero future must be focused on our need for clean air and a safe climate, rather than debate over property and immediate financial return.

What is Farm’s role?

Farm as a network can connect farmers, renewable energy companies, capital, and land to create a more sustainable future for energy in the U.S. Prioritizing the safety of communities and ecosystems is central to our mission as we engage with this rapidly changing industry.