Science, Tech & Environment

Greening the grid

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(Image: Hari Menon, Creative Commons)

The U.S. has some of the world's greatest potential for power from the wind and sun. But getting that clean electricity to where it's needed means many miles of new electric transmission and building new power lines is a costly and often controversial job. "Living on Earth's" Jeff Young reports on a new high-power effort to green the grid.

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It wasn't officially a State of the Union address. But President Barack Obama's first speech to Congress had all the trappings and high expectations of one as he laid out his plan to jumpstart the stalled economy.

Energy is so important to President Obama's plans for the future of the nation he put it at the very top of his speech. And he challenged lawmakers to top their agenda with limits on the green house gases from burning fossil fuels:

"So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. That's what we need."

Selling credits for carbon emissions would be a new source of revenue for the federal government, raising as much as 300 billion dollars a year. Money that would be used for tax cuts and re-tooling the energy economy including thousands of miles of new high-tension power lines. But Living on Earth's Jeff Young says there are some high hurdles to building a greener grid.

President Bill Clinton took the seat next to Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi settled in nearby. Legendary oilman turned wind power advocate T. Boone Pickens found himself sandwiched between two Nobel laureates—Al Gore and new energy secretary Steven Chu.

The two dozen panelists piled on the reasons people concerned about climate and energy should be thinking about the grid. In short, it's the missing link in the path to a clean energy future. Some called for an electron superhighway, much the same way we once built an interstate highway system. Massachusetts democratic representative Ed Markey likened it to early efforts to electrify the country.

It will not be easy or cheap. The recently passed economic stimulus bill includes 11 billion dollars in support for grid improvements and expansion. That figure's dwarfed by cost estimates for new lines that would link the Great Plains to cities in the Midwest and Northeast.

But money might not be the biggest obstacle. New transmission lines run into a briar patch of siting and permitting problems. High voltage lines can cut through scenery and carve up sensitive habitat. Landowners fear lost property value, and local governments fear getting saddled with costs for projects that don't benefit them. Former New York Republican Governor George Pataki offered the panel a reality check:

"Tell someone you're going to run wires through their community that come from one state and run through to another state? You don't have to take a poll. No one is gonna be for it! What is missing is the ability of those who desire to build this transmission system to actually get approval and the permit to do it. It takes years, it takes hundreds of millions of dollars, and at best the outcome is uncertain."

Even when the purported goal is to carry clean energy, power lines can still end up generating controversy. Case in point: a line called Sunrise Powerlink. It's supposed to link San Diego to new solar generation planned in the desert to the east. A natural way to win support from eco-conscious Californians, right? Wrong.

The Sierra Club's Carl Zichella says the 150-mile line would threaten desert habitat with few assurances that it would really carry solar power. A natural gas facility lies nearby to the south. The Sunrise project got preliminary approval from the state but now faces legal challenges from environmental groups.

Zichella's been fighting that and other power line proposals for years. But he recently joined a coalition of renewable energy advocates and businesses who want to find a way they can support new power lines: "For folks that have been advocating for renewable energy for years as a solution to the climate crisis you can't love renewable energy if you don't like transmission. And we're gonna have to learn to like transmission. And the only way we'll learn to like it is by putting it in the right places."

Read full transcript.

Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."