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Renewable Reality Check

How solar PV could redraw the map for green energy and grid investment.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2009

will be required in additional electric transmission lines to accommodate these green resources.

Compare that scenario with what you’ve been reading about in this column in recent issues: About the massive multi-billion dollar investments in new transmission infrastructure that have proposed to bring wind energy and other remote renewable resources from source to sink so as to comply with RPS laws now in force among the states, or expected in the future at the federal level.

This assumption—billions upon billions of dollars for grid expansion—has shaped industry thinking and dominated FERC dockets for at least 24 months. It has spawned collaborative initiatives to evaluate and map out the locations of the most valuable wind, solar, geothermal and other green energy resources, so planners can get busy and design a grid overlay network—a 21st century green-energy superhighway, likened to Eisenhower’s 1950s interstate highway system—to bring the power to market.

Congress now is considering legislation (S. 539, for example) that would mandate the creation of scores of county-sized renewable energy zones (REZ) spread across the country, and then establish a separate, super-regional planning agency for each of the three electrical grid interconnections—Eastern, Western, and ERCOT (Texas)—to decide how best to bring all that REZ power to market, and where to site all the billions of dollars in new electric transmission lines that are so obviously needed.

But what if they aren’t?

What if utilities in California and elsewhere can satisfy their renewable portfolio standards (RPS) largely by plopping down a few solar photovoltaic collector cells at point of use—on commercial rooftops and in vacant lots located right in the midst of America’s power- hungry neighborhoods—without having to build hundreds and thousands of miles of new transmission lines?

That’s the message coming out of the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) in California. But you won’t hear it from the official Phase 1A and 1B Final Reports of the stakeholder steering committee, which some say is grounded in yesterday’s paradigm, not unless you read between the lines.

Rather, the warnings of this new reality check are coming from the engineers, environmentalists and private power developers—who perceive that technology is racing way ahead of the regulators and policymakers.

The Politics of Zoning

Between February 2 and March 2 of this year, the zone identification and technology assessment working group for the Western Renewable Energy Zones Project (WREZ)—a joint initiative of the Western Governors’ Association and the U.S. DOE—took public comments from environmental groups, industry trade associations, power-project developers, investor-owned utilities, Native American tribes, military installations, state energy agencies and various other groups regarding ZITA’s initial proposed mapping of renewable energy zones, known in WREZ lingo as qualified resource areas (QRAs), to be spread across a broad region including some 11 Western states, plus the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. (See Fig. 1. WREZ Project—Preliminary Zones.)

Judging from the comments, the WREZ process appears engrossed in purely political questions. In fact, many stakeholders seem to see the process as a form of economic stimulus package—a way of attracting outside funds for local development.

For example, what