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CAP THE

GRID

ROBERT E. KING

a bout th e author
An engineer with decades of experience developing small-scale hydroelectric, solar, and wind power projects,
BobKing is the president of Ashuelot River Hydro in Keene, New Hampshire. He owns and operates hydroelectric dams in New England and upstate New York, and he is deeply engaged in land conservation and renewable
energy activism.

This publication is an excerpted chapter from The Energy Reader: Overdevelopment and
the Delusion of Endless Growth, Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner,
eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2012). The Energy Reader is copyright
2012 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and published in collaboration with
Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute.
For other excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit energy-reality.org or
contact Post Carbon Institute.
Photo: George Wuerthner. Transmission lines near Malad, Idaho, disrupt the wide open
feeling of the West.

Post Ca r bon I nst i t u t e | 613 4t h St r e et, Su i t e 208 | Sa n ta Rosa, Ca li for n i a 95404 USA

As a species, we must learn to live within the physical


limitations of the biosphere. In the electric energy
sector, this requires reversing the worldwide trend of
everexpanding
Pullelectricity
quote here
supply
lorem
grids
ipsum
carrying energy
vast distances from dolor
more sit
and
amet
more large, centralized
power plants. Capping the grid is a crucial step toward
reducing greenhouse gas pollution and increasing the
percentage of electricity generated by renewables.

he electric grid, comprised of generation, transmission, and distribution facilities, is controlled


in the United States by independent system operators
and electric utilities. These grid operators work closely
with power plant owners and government regulators as
they operate and plan for the future of the electric system. Grid operators regularly forecast electricity usage
in their region and then set off alarm bells when they
see the forecasted demand for electricity exceeding the
supply. There follows a Pavlovian reaction as planners,
engineers, and generation companies enter a bidding
process to determine who will build the next round
of generation and transmission to meet the predicted
supply shortfall.
Civic leaders respond to the dire scenarios forecast and
become part of a positive feedback loop driving an
ever-expanding grid by pushing for additional power
plant and transmission construction. The end result,
not surprisingly, is to keep fossil fuel use high, electricity supplies plentiful, prices relatively low, and serious
conservation limited only to the virtuous.
Grid growth results from population growth, economic growth, and growth in per capita consumption.
In a finite global ecosystem, societies would do well to
figure out how to flourish in the absence of unchecked
growth on all these fronts. They must, however, figure
out how to stopand ideally reversegrid growth

because of the multitude of negative impacts associated with the expanding grid. The U.S. Energy
Information Administration predicts the grid will
grow in the next twenty-five years at an annual rate
of 0.51 percent. This may not sound like much, but
it would require adding ten power plants the size of
Three Mile Island every year.
Specific drivers of grid growth include the Internet,
which now consumes 510 percent of worldwide electrical energy. Countless servers and personal computers
running 24/7 have a larger carbon footprint than the
worlds aviation industry, according to recent research.
In the near future, electric cars, which are more efficient
than gas or fuel cell vehicles, will demand an increasing
share of the grids output, though they can also help
stabilize the grid if programmed to send energy back
from their batteries at peak demand hours. If car charging occurs late at night, it takes advantage of existing
generating capacity when it is underutilized. To make
this a truly ecological progression, however, the charging energy should be derived from deep conservation,
such as the retirement of millions of unnecessary lights
that now currently pollute the night sky in the interest
of 24-hour commerce and presumed security.
Since the 1978 passage of the Public Utility Regulatory
Policies Act, with many fits and starts, renewable energy
sources have begun to fill in the need for additional
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energy supply. Their obvious advantages include lower


carbon and other emissions and reduced dependence
on foreign oil and gas. But every renewable resource
comes with an environmental cost. Hydropower of
all sizes affects river hydrology and biota. Large hydro
typically destroys vast and increasingly rare wild places.
Industrial-scale wind can similarly erode wilderness
values while harming avifauna and possibly humans.
Biomass quickly runs into the ecological limits of forests that are often better left standing. Concentrated
solar power plants can destroy desert habitat, and manufacturing solar photovoltaic panels is energy intensive
and produces toxic pollution.
If we simply add renewables to an ever-growing energy
mix, then we have the negative impacts of renewables
in addition to the carbon emissions of the fossil-based
system. Clearly we have to rein in this system-wide
growth, and two essential elements for doing so are a
cap on energy generation and a price for the external
costs of this generation (primarily carbon emissions).
A cap would insure that each and every megawatt-hour
of generation by renewables permanently displaces the
same amount of fossil-fueled generation. For example,
if the controversial Cape Wind offshore wind farm in
Massachusetts is brought online, the dirty and inefficient fossil-fueled Mirant Canal Power Plant, also
located on Cape Cod, should be retired, thereby
permanently reducing the carbon emissions of the
regional grid.
In addition, the external costs of electric generation
must be internalized. Putting a price on carbon emissions creates a further incentive to retire dirty fossil
generators like Mirant Canal. Shutting down old plants
as renewables ramp up will also help prevent a supply
glut that would put downward pressure on the price of
electricity. Energy planners and economists will find
this idea heretical because they believe that increasing
prices will be deleterious to the economy. What really
matters to the frugal consumer, however, is not the cost
per kilowatt-hour but the bottom line on his or her
electric bill. The individual or business consumer will
pursue deep energy conservation not because someone
is telling them to, but because its the obvious solution

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when faced with rising energy pricesprices that


reflect the true cost of the energy.
Implementing aggressive conservation and energy efficiency across all energy sectors should be the first order
of business in national energy policy, even before development and adoption of large-scale renewables. People
often think that energy conservation means replacing
incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. This is
the tip of the melting iceberg. Efficiency is changing a
light bulb. Conservation is never installing the light fixture in the first place. Efficiency is when you buy a TV
with an LED screen. Conservation is when you jettison
the TV. But efficiency and conservation by themselves
are not enough.
If efficiency measures are implemented by a large cohort
of early adopters, in the absence of other market or regulatory signals the outcome might fall short. The reason
is that a significant reduction in usage across the grid
will lower demand and result in a throttling back of the
more expensive power plants that operate on the supply
margin. The spot market price of electricity will drop,
and the average consumer will have incentive to use
more, not less energy (an example of what is known as
Jevons Paradox). A 2010 study by Sandia National Labs
reached a related conclusionthat super-efficient LED
lighting may in fact result in more light usage and possibly more electricity usage overall. Throughout history,
people have endeavored to add more artificial light to
their daily lives. With compact fluorescents and LEDs,
people think their light source is more efficient, so they
may be prone to leave it on longer or add more lighting.
The solution is to slowly and steadily increase per unit
energy prices in parallel with increasing efficiency. The
wise consumer will attempt to reduce his usage ahead
of increasing energy prices.
Energy use per capita and energy intensity (energy input
per unit of economic output) have started to decline in
some states and countries, particularly when price signals are combined with conservation programs. A wise
national energy policy would embrace this decline and
improve upon it dramatically to achieve an energy sector that does not place an undue burden on the climate
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and all natural systems. A good example is California,


where energy efficiency has been the mandated energy
resource of first choice since 2003. Utility companies
profits are decoupled from energy sales, and now they
earn additional profits by implementing energy efficiency programs. Over the last twenty years, increasing
efficiency has replaced power plant construction even as
the population and the economy have grown. One reason that efficiency measures have worked is that prices
were allowed to creep up. So California has reversed
the trend of ever-increasing energy intensity. It is building renewables aggressively and often with significant
environmental impact, but the states carbon footprint
within the electricity sector is shrinking.
The least destructive energy future lies in conservation,
efficiency, centralized and dispersed renewables, and an
ongoing use of natural gas to transition through the carbon and population bottleneck of the next fifty years.
Photovoltaics should be installed on every rooftop in
this country within twenty-five years, paid for in part
by a permanent and hefty tax credit and further rationalized by generally higher energy prices. Large-scale
wind in the plains, mountains, and offshore will be
critical, although the preservation of wild and beautiful
places must take precedence. Biomass-fueled electricity
will be less plentiful, assuming we dont wish to overcut forests and convert too much land to agriculture
for biofuel crops, but will be useful in some regions
as baseload generation. Natural gas, though a carbon
emitter, will remain in the mix as baseload power since
it has the potential to be more efficient and less polluting than other fossil fuels. (To achieve its promise as a
bridge fuel to a clean energy future, however, gas
extraction through hydrofracturing must be effectively
regulated and the leakage of unburned methane systemwide must be eliminated.) All these supplies will be
augmented by centralized and distributed energy storage facilities to smooth the volatile curve of small-scale
renewable energy production.
How is all this to come about? It will only occur via
accurate price signals and strong regulation. It will come
when an engaged citizenry says Enough! to endless government subsidies of entrenched technologies:

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enough of loan guarantees and the Price Anderson Act,


limiting liability at nuclear plants; enough subsidies to
Big Oil via Middle East military engagements; enough
subsidies to all fossil fuel use by allowing the dumping
of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere for
free. Then, upon a level playing field, renewables will
easily compete.
Perhaps this economic internalization of externalities
presently borne by society and nature will come as a tax
shift toward carbon and away from income, as has begun
in some European countries. Perhaps it will be the carbon Fee and Dividend approach advocated by NASA
scientist James Hansen, in which a price on carbon is
collected and refunded to taxpayers. Germanys rooftop
solar subsidies known as Feed-In Tariffs have dramatically grown its solar industry and renewable generating
capacity. The United States flirts with incentives, but
for these to be truly effective they should be made permanent so that the renewables industry is not subject to
constant uncertainty. Tax credits are a step in the right
direction, but a complete overhaul of the tax system to
internalize carbon emissions and other externalities and
plow some of the revenues back into efficiency has the
potential to radically alter our energy future.
The current energy economy cannot be fundamentally reformed until society discards the idea that endless growth in the energy sector is a prerequisite for
the good life. We should not begin to develop the
large-scale renewables envisioned above unless every
new, renewable megawatt-hour will replace a dirty, carbonemitting megawatt-hour. Imposing a moratorium on overall growth of the electricity generation sector is crucial.
Then, through scarcity, prices will increase and simple
laws of supply and demand will usher in the largest conservation and efficiency movement ever seen. An endlessly expanding energy sector, fueled by nuclear and
other mega-industrial developments, only perpetuates
the impossible premise that there are no limits to how
much energy we should consume.
As a practical matter, how do we move cap the grid
from idea to reality? Grid operators control the electric
system, but they are subject to oversight by the Federal
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Energy Regulatory Commission and various reliability


councils. Ultimately, all these organizations respond to
political pressure, which could be applied by a revitalized energy reform movement. In the Northeast, the
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap and trade
program for carbon emissions, is now the law because
the governors and legislators of ten states got together
and agreed to make it so. It took time, and it is not
nearly as strong as it needs to be, but change in the
electric sector is possible if enough people demand it.

It is not clear if the environmental impacts of large, new


transmission projects are an acceptable trade-off for the
benefits of dispersed renewables. And there are other
problems with the use of long transmission lines. In the
United States, about 6.5percent of the energy flowing into the grid is lostturned into heat in the wires.
This equates to the energy used by 24million average
American households! By contrast, when energy is generated on your rooftop by solar panels, the transmission
loss is essentially zero.

How would a grid cap work? A cap would be applied


to the total energy production on the grid. With an
increasing price on carbon, the oldest, dirtiest plants
would become uneconomic, making way for cleaner
generation. In their planning processes, grid operators
and regulators would allow for new generation as the
older, dirtier plants were retired. Of course, the embedded technocrats who have built todays grid will put
up tremendous resistance. Overcoming this institutional momentum will require a unified environmental
movement, which now wastes resources on internecine
battles over the impacts of various renewable energy
projects. Perhaps there would be more tolerance for
some of these projects if it was recognized that every
megawatt-hour of renewables would permanently replace a
megawatt-hour of carbon-based generation.

New transmission lines through undeveloped landscapes should be avoided entirely. These are typically
vast linear clear-cuts with subsequent reductions in
carbon sequestration, and they often act as gateways
to industrialism in our wildest and most remote places.
Whether on land or undersea, thousands of miles of
high-voltage lines through remote areas represent a
large national security risk. They are unprotected
and more vulnerable than most policy makers realize. As recent blackouts have shown, minor failures
in key nodes on the grid can take out power to entire
regions. Transmission line construction is enormously
expensiveanother cost ultimately picked up by the
electricity consumer. Thus, new transmission projects
are and will be hugely controversial, and there is no
point in entertaining them if we cannot first agree to
cap the grid.

A grid cap does not mean that no more transmission lines


will ever be built. New or higher voltage lines could be
built in existing transmission corridors, and local distribution systems could be improved to accommodate distributed generation and storage. Europe has been much
more serious about its carbon reduction strategies; the
European Commissions recently developed Energy
Roadmap 2050 envisions the necessary infrastructure for a renewably powered Europe. It is instructive
because it massively scales up renewables. It is formidable in its call for thousands of miles of underwater
high-voltage direct-current transmission lines as a way
to link the wind and hydro resources of Scandanavia
with the solar potential of the Mediterranean countries. There are similar calls in the United States for
a huge increase in terrestrial transmission capacity to
carry wind energy from the Great Plains to the coasts.

What about the Smart Grid? Will it solve our energy


problems? The Smart Grid is happening already and it
does have some potential benefits, particularly if politicians will allow price signals to play a role. One benefit
will come when commercial and industrial consumers
are subject to real-time energy pricing and can easily
access this information along with their usage data via
smart meters. In this case, they would quickly figure out
when to scale back usage, thereby correcting grid overloads before they happen. Instead, regulators now mandate extra generation and transmission capacity to meet
the highest peaks, even though this capacity is often idle
outside of peak periods. But the wonders of the Smart
Grid are easily oversold. The Energy Independence and
Security Act of 2007 compels some grid operators to
begin using the satellite GPS network to collect grid
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data that informs grid control. Is this more complicated


system really more independent or secure? No, it is simply
an escalating dependence on multiple, interwoven layers of vulnerable technology.
Real security and independence would come from deep
conservation and energy efficiency and decentralized
renewable generation, with less dependence on massive, long-distance energy flows. Lasting security and
independence would come from a system of pricing that
reflects all the costs of our energy choices and thereby
motivates consumers such that serious conservation
would no longer be the realm of the virtuous.

ENERGY

Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth


Edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner
We have reached a point of crisis with regard to energy...
The essential problem is not just that we are tapping the
wrong energy sources (though we are), or that we are wasteful
and inefficient (though we are), but that we are overpowered,
and we are overpowering nature.
from the Introduction, by Richard Heinberg

In a large-format, image-driven narrative featuring over 150


breathtaking color photographs, ENERGY explores the
impacts of the global energy economy: from oil spills and
mountaintop-removal coal mining to oversized wind farms
and desert-destroying solar power plants. ENERGY lifts the
veil on the harsh realities of our pursuit of energy at any
price, revealing the true costs, benefits, and limitations of
all our energy options.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and
Post Carbon Institute. 336 pages, 11.75 x 13.4, 152 color photographs, 5 line illustrations.
$50.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0970950086, Fall 2012.

The ENERGY Reader


Edited by Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner

What magic, or monster, lurks behind the light switch and


the gas pump? Where does the seemingly limitless
energy that fuels modern society come from? From oil
spills, nuclear accidents, mountaintop removal coal
mining, and natural gas fracking to wind power projects
and solar power plants, every source of energy has costs.
Featuring the essays found in ENERGY plus additional
material, The ENERGY Reader takes an unflinching look
at the systems that support our insatiable thirst for more
power along with their unintended side effects.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and
Post Carbon Institute. 384 pages, 6 x 9, 7 b/w photographs, 5 line illustrations.
$19.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0970950093, Fall 2012.

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