Michael Bloomberg is no dope. He’s made a lot of money, been mayor of New York City, seen a thing or two in the course of his life’s journey. Yesterday, the teletype machine at CleanTechnica global headquarters high in the Himalayas sprang into action to let us know he had a new opinion piece coming out this morning that would make the case for more renewable energy and less electricity from thermal generation. Here is a brief insight into what Michael Bloomberg has to say on that subject.
When freezing temperatures in the southeastern US led to blackouts over the holidays, some pointed their fingers at clean energy. That line of attack — solar panels and wind turbines are less reliable in storms than coal and gas plants — has become predictable. But it’s dead wrong, and it’s important to understand why, to avoid allowing a canard to slow the push for cleaner air and bolder climate action.
The issue of electricity reliability is a crucial one and is rightly at the center of energy debates. Blackouts from storms can lead to suffering and death: In western New York last month, nine residents died after power failures cut off heat to their homes. Blackouts also result in steep economic losses. Avoiding them should be a top priority.
The most common cause of blackouts — downed power lines — is also the most visible. But there is one source of energy that safeguards against that danger: rooftop solar. If a tree takes down wires, or the energy grid fails for other reasons, solar panels with batteries can help families and businesses weather a blackout.
It’s true that on-site solar is not practical for every home, but it’s viable in far more places than commonly imagined. And the main reason more homes and businesses don’t have their own solar panels is political: States and localities have made it unnecessarily difficult to obtain solar permits, and utilities have lobbied to block Americans from selling their excess power back onto the grid or force them into accepting prices far below what the utilities receive for transmitting the same units of power.
As a result, the public is paying a steep cost: in higher electric bills, dangerous blackouts, harmful pollution that kills thousands of Americans every year, and changes to the climate that are making extreme weather — and the suffering that it brings — worse.
The second-largest cause of electricity outages during extreme weather is production failure. And once again, renewable energy has advantages over coal and gas in severe weather.
Singing The Praises Of Renewable Energy
Bloomberg’s message is one that we here at CleanTechnica have been promoting for years, but it requires a paradigm shift in how we think about electricity. Ever since the dawn of electricity — back when people used to light their homes with gas lights and power their factories with steam — the model has been to build a large thermal generating system somewhere out in the boondocks where few would see it, then send all that lovely electricity along wires to the cities and towns where it was needed.
But renewables disrupt that hub and spoke model. Home owners and small businesses can harvest electricity from solar panels on the roof and store it on site in batteries. But because utilities have a monopoly on generating electricity, it is illegal for one home owner or business to share that electricity with others. The monopoly idea made sense 100 years ago. Nobody wanted to see six sets of poles and wires from six different electricity companies cluttering up the skyline. But what made sense then makes less sense today. Back then, there was no opportunity for individuals to generate their own electricity. Today there is.
The Permitting Problem
Writing in Bloomberg Green this morning, Nathaniel Bullard extols the policy initiatives contained in the Inflation Reduction Act, but then asks some pertinent questions.
“What if deploying everything the IRA promises isn’t possible through technology, or money, or willpower? What if, instead, it comes up against a massively distributed blocking mechanism — a collective inability to navigate new assets through sclerotic planning and permission schedules?
“I hope this is not the path. But if it is, many carbon-cutting efforts will go unrealized because we quite literally could not plan for them. It would be unfortunate to pin fundamental climate progress not on lack of technology, or capital, or positive interest, but rather on languor at best and opposition at worst.”
Bullard addresses something that Bloomberg glosses over. Connecting renewables from one part of the country to another part of the country will require massive investments in new transmission lines which are themselves the weak link in any energy distribution system. Just ask Puerto Rico what happened when its transmission lines were destroyed by a hurricane in 2019. Bullard suggests repurposing decommissioned thermal generating plants as renewable energy hubs because a) they are usually out of sight, b) they need site remediation anyway, and c) they already have robust transmission links to the grid.
When we put our collective heads together here at CleanTechnica (not a pretty sight!), we think Michael Bloomberg is right and Nathaniel Bullard is right, but in the best of all possible worlds, we would like to see a surge in microgrids that make renewable energy locally and distribute it locally. Sure there would be interconnections between all those microgrids, but they would be used only when absolutely necessary.
That is a total disruption of the electricity generation and distribution model but it is bringing electricity to many parts of Africa and bypassing the utility grid entirely. Why couldn’t the rest of the world do the same?
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