An Unexpected Current That's Remaking American Politics

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  • Source: Politico
  • 07/31/2020
At the annual National Republican Congressional Committee dinner in Washington this month, President Donald Trump made news with some curious remarks about wind power. What went viral was his untrue suggestion that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer, but his warning that home values instantly plunge 75 percent when a windmill is built nearby was equally false. He also claimed wind power is inordinately expensive, when in fact in much of America it is now the cheapest source of electricity. The president then play-acted a scene of a woman complaining to her husband about wind power’s supposed unreliability: “I can’t watch television, darling. Darling, please tell the wind to blow!”

That was baseless, too, yet at the same time it actually did refer to a serious challenge for the clean energy revolution: the “intermittency” of wind and solar electricity. As more renewable power replaces Trump’s preferred coal plants, and more states aim to eliminate fossil fuels from their electric grids, utilities are grappling with how to make sure they can ensure uninterrupted service when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Some states are already starting to get major portions of their electricity from renewables, and while the president’s exaggerated scenario of weather-dependent TV reflects his general disdain for climate-friendly technologies, reliability could become an increasingly formidable problem as the grid gets increasingly green.

But now another technology revolution is underway that could help solve that problem: an electricity storage boom. The cost of lithium-ion batteries has plunged 85 percent in a decade, and 30 percent in just the past year, so utilities across the U.S. have started attaching containers full of them to the grid—and they’re planning to install far more of them in the coming years. Electricity has always been the toughest commodity to manage, because unlike water, grain, fuel or steel, it has been largely impossible to store for later use. But that is changing fast, and even though the dramatic growth of batteries on the grid will be invisible to most Americans, it has the potential to transform how we produce and consume power, creating more flexible and resilient electricity systems with less waste, lower costs and fewer emissions.

“This will be like the change from analog to digital, or landlines to cell phones,” says Advanced Microgrid Systems CEO Susan Kennedy, whose firm’s software helps utilities optimize their power choices every instant of every day. “The energy industry will never be the same.”

Electricity storage will reshape the grid in many ways, but the most important is its potential to accelerate the already explosive growth of renewable energy—and that will have political implications. Of the 21 states with the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita, Trump won 20 of them, and the lone exception, New Mexico, just passed a law committing to 100 percent clean power by 2045. By contrast, Hillary Clinton won the eight states with the lowest emissions per capita. But that carbon divide is not necessarily permanent. Eighty percent of the wind power installed during Trump’s presidency has been built in states he won, and the five most wind-dependent states were all Trump states. And while the storage boom started in blue states like California and Hawaii, it is taking off in Texas, Florida, and the rest of Red America as well. Polls suggest “clean energy” is now popular throughout the country, even though “climate action” is not, and there are now more than 3 million clean energy jobs in America, versus only 50,000 coal-mining jobs. The president’s fossil-fueled rhetoric no longer reflects the reality on the ground. And the politics of energy might become less partisan in a world in which renewable power becomes much more common.
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