Right now, of course, neither strategy has been adopted. While pilot projects like the one in Boulder are worthwhile as a way to demonstrate new technologies, they’ve been implemented in hodgepodge fashion, with different utilities deploying different technologies in different states. Transmission projects are advancing incrementally, but they’re often complicated by conflicts between the states. “What we have today is this patchwork of rules and regulations that vary by state,” says Peter Corsell, CEO of GridPoint, a startup in Arlington, VA, that makes smart-grid software and is participating in the Boulder project. “We are all entrenched in this broken system, and there is no agreement on how to fix it. It’s a vicious circle.”
Some think that the answer is to give FERC more authority. Today, the agency can overrule states’ decisions on where to site transmission lines, but only in regions that the U.S. Department of Energy has designated as critical for the security of the electricity supply. So far, only two such corridors have been designated: one in the mid-Atlantic states and another in the Southwest. Even in those regions, delays continue. Southern California Edison has proposed a major transmission line in the southwest corridor; stretching from outside Los Angeles to near Phoenix, AZ, it would be able to handle power generated by future photovoltaic and solar-thermal power plants. But Arizona rejected the idea, so the utility is preparing to take its plans to FERC.
Others think the solution is a new federal policy that would make the market for renewable power more lucrative, perhaps by regulating carbon dioxide emissions, as the cap-and-trade policy proposed by Obama would do. Under such a policy, wind energy and other carbon-free electricity sources would become much more valuable, providing an incentive for utilities to expand their capacity to handle them (see “Q&A,” p. 28). “It could all change very fast,” says Will Kaul, vice president for transmission at Great River Energy in Minnesota, who heads a joint transmission planning effort that includes 11 utilities in the Midwest. “If there was a carbon policy, or a national renewable-energy standard, then the scale of wind generation would explode.”
As Gore and other environmental experts warn–and as the engineers at Vattenfall would testify–an explosion in the use of renewables will depend heavily on upgrading the grid. That won’t come cheap, but the payoff may be worth it. “We should think about this in the same way we think about the role of the federal highway system,” says Ernest Moniz, a physics professor at MIT who heads the school’s energy research initiative. “It is the key enabler to allow us to modernize our whole electricity production system. And renewables are an especially important beneficiary. There is no technology reason why we cannot move on this aggressively.”
David Talbot is Technology Review’s Chief correspondent.