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Why Obama's Plan to Help Renewable Energy May Backfire and Aid Big Coal

Obama's plan for a "national smart" grid needs closer examination. An expanded national grid would be anything but smart.

The new mantra in energy circles is "national smart grid."

In the New York Times, Al Gore insists the new president should give the highest priority to "the planning and construction of a unified national smart grid." President Barack Obama, responding to a question by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, declares that one of "the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid ... a smart grid."

We lump together the two words, "national" and "smart" as if they were joined at the hip, but in fact each describes and enables a very different electricity future. The word "national" in these discussions refers to the construction of tens of thousands of miles of new national ultra-high-voltage transmission lines, an initiative that would further separate power plants from consumers, and those who make the electricity decisions from those who feel the impact of those decisions.

The word "smart," on the other hand, refers to upgrading the existing network to make it more resilient and efficient. A smart grid can decentralize both generation and authority. Sophisticated electronic sensors, wireless communication, software and ever-more powerful computers will connect electricity customers and suppliers in real time, making possible a future in which tens of millions of households and businesses actively interact with the electricity network as both consumers and producers.

Advocates of a new national ultra-high-voltage transmission network offer three main arguments:

1. New high-voltage transmission lines are needed to decrease electric grid congestion and therefore increase reliability and security.

There is indeed congestion on some parts of our distribution and transmission networks. Congestion reveals a problem; it doesn't demand a specific solution. It can be addressed by reducing demand through increasing energy efficiency or by increasing on-site or local energy production, strategies often less costly and quicker to implement than building new transmission lines. An analogy from the solid-waste sector may be appropriate. Exhausting nearby landfills does not inevitably require us to send our garbage to newly constructed and more distant landfills. We can emphasize recycling, composting, scrap-based manufacturing and reuse.

2. A new national high-voltage transmission network is necessary to dramatically increase renewable energy.

President Obama wants to build new transmission lines because, "I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago." Writing in Vanity Fair, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wants a new high-voltage transmission system to "deliver solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy across the country."

But do we really need to deliver renewable energy across the country? The distinguishing characteristic of renewable energy is its availability in abundant quantities virtually everywhere.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently pulled together the modest amount of data available on the amount of renewable energy available in each state. Our report, "Energy Self-Reliant States," concludes that at least half the 50 states could meet all of their internal electricity demand with renewable energy found inside their borders, and all states could meet their current renewable electricity mandates from homegrown energy sources.

High-voltage transmission lines are not necessary to dramatically expand renewable-energy generation. But they are essential if we want to expand coal-generated electricity, because coal is found in limited places, and coal-fired power plants tend to be very large and therefore must serve very large markets. This is why, until recently, the primary advocates for new high-voltage transmission lines were those who wanted to construct large coal-fired power plants.

One of the most effective ways to stop new coal-fired power plants is to stop building new high-voltage transmission lines.

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