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The Monitor's View

Obama's high-wire electric act

Will he take people's land to build a national grid when local networks for energy renewables may do?

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 28, 2009



To justify taking homes and farms to build the Interstate highway, President Eisenhower cited a security need: Military vehicles must move fast in case of war. Now President Obama, citing a need to curb global warming, wants new transmission lines across America to carry electricity from carbon-free energy sources. Will he also use federal muscle to take people's land, even wilderness?

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The question hangs like a sparking high-tension wire over Mr. Obama's plans to plow $11 billion – part of his economic stimulus – into a "smart grid," which is critical to his ambitious goal to curb fossil fuel use by 2020.

Even without a need to help renewables transmit electrons, the nation's electric grid needs an upgrade. Its structure hasn't changed much from the days of Thomas Edison. Blackouts, such as the big one in 2003 that left 50 million people in the dark, are increasing. Its 164,000 miles of lines and 9,200 generating plants are ill-equipped to accept power from small-scale sources such as wind, geothermal, and biomass.

Yet Obama wants to double renewable energy within three years and bring it "to every corner of our nation." Without smashing through local resistance and environmental concerns to new transmission lines, he's unlikely to reach his goal.

One problem is that the best sites for renewables are generally not near major cities. Sun is plentiful in the Southwest and wind in the Great Plains. Most Americans live near the coasts.

In 2005, a new federal statute authorized the Energy secretary to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors while also allowing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to use eminent domain to build new lines. Both provisions have drawn fierce opposition, especially in New Jersey where the entire state has been designated a corridor. NIMBYism remains a strong force despite Al Gore's climate-change campaign.

The Obama team is slowly trying to make a compelling legal case for stronger federal powers. One think tank aligned with the new president, the Center for American Progress, claims "America's electricity grid is a vulnerable intersection of our national security interests and our energy and economic security." The new Energy secretary, Steven Chu, says new lines must be sited "in a way that takes into consideration the local feelings, but yet also recognizes the national needs."

One problem with this approach is that it is too national and potentially Big Brotherish in its methods, while most of the action so far on renewables is local and needs only local connections to utilities.

What's needed are "microgrids," or small-scale electricity distribution systems with many sources and local storage – much like the Internet – with a centralized long-distance system only as backup. Thousands of buildings now generate much of their electricity from rooftop solar panels, for example. Denmark, which relies on renewables for nearly a third of its electricity, has moved to microgrids.

Before Obama starts forcing people off their land for a worthy global cause, he should first think local. Many people – and states – are already ahead of him.

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