The scientific community was amazed last week by news of a breakthrough in the generation of power from nuclear fusion, long one of the holy grails of renewable energy.
It’s an exciting development. Maybe one day, fusion sources will be part of a robust mix supplying all the clean energy we need.
But that day won’t be any time soon.
Fortunately, in order to reach our goals, it doesn’t have to be. Just by harnessing the power of the sun and the wind using the technology available now, we can reduce the use of fossil fuels and make great strides toward climate goals while reducing prices for consumers.
Unfortunately, to do so, we’ll have to build more transmission lines – something that at times has proved just as vexing as nuclear fusion to achieve.
Mainers know this well from the saga of the New England Clean Energy Connect project, proposed by the state of Massachusetts as a way to bring hydropower from Canada to the regional power grid, essentially replacing some fossil fuel use.
The project, met with opposition by both the people who live along the route of the proposed transmission line and the natural gas companies poised to lose revenue because of it, is now mired in court challenges.
It’s not just happening here. Only 386 miles of transmission line were built in the entire U.S. in 2020, down from 1,702 the year before and more than 3,500 miles in 2013. For reasons largely to do with disagreement about land use and aesthetic concerns, dozens of utility-scale clean-power projects have been delayed or blocked by local opposition.
That’s a problem. Unlike gas-fired power plants, which can be placed nearly anywhere, solar arrays and wind turbines must go where the wind blows and the sun shines. Transmission lines then carry the power to the grid.
As Maine has seen with the NECEC project, or with the debate over how to connect offshore wind power to land, that can be a tough sell.
And it’s not just local opposition that can sink a project. With approval needed from several state, regional and federal authorities, there are plenty of points along the way where a clean-energy project can be waylaid.
While the future of NECEC plays out in court, Maine will have another chance to bring a significant amount of carbon-free electricity to the grid.
If approved, the King Pine wind farm, likely through a partnership between Maine and Massachusetts, would be built near Houlton. It would generate enough electricity to power 450,000 homes “at full tilt” and would save Maine ratepayers an estimated $1.08 billion over 20 years as cheaper wind power replaces electricity generated by fossil fuels.
It would also finally connect Aroostook County to the New England grid through a transmission line running along a yet-to-be-determined route to Pittsfield, opening the way for additional clean energy projects up north, and fulfilling a longstanding economic goal for the region.
Will those benefits be enough to get the project over the line?
When it comes to the transition to an economy run on clean energy, one without the emissions, pollution and volatile prices we have today, that is the biggest question out there.
Utility-scale solar and wind projects are producing clean electricity at lower cost than carbon-emitting power plants and, once online, those costs stay constant, regardless of what happens around the globe.
Along the same lines, electric vehicles and heating systems are now as affordable and efficient, if not more so, than their counterparts. Rooftop solar also is in reach for many people, and pays off in the long run. The main factors holding them back are no longer technological, but have to do with supply chain challenges, labor shortages and opposition to development.
Solving them may not require quantum physics, but it will take a concerted effort at all levels of government to both streamline the approval process and train more workers in the renewable energy sector. The Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year includes groundbreaking incentives for the clean energy transition, and will help create the domestic supply chain necessary to speed it up.
But it will be all for naught if renewable power projects get caught up in an interminable approval process, or if people who want to buy an EV or install solar panels can’t find them in the marketplace.
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