One of my earliest memories is visiting my father in the hospital after a high-voltage accident caused him to fall from an electrical transmission pole. That fall never dampened his enthusiasm for his work as a utility lineman, climbing up power poles in the middle of lightning storms to restore electricity after outages.
My father’s days as a utility worker represent the grid that George Westinghouse conceived of in the late 1800s with its one-way distribution system of power delivered directly to consumers. It began at central generation facilities, usually a hydroelectric facility or coal-fired power plant, and traveled from there on high-voltage transmission lines that still tower over America’s landscape. From transmission lines, the power then branched into smaller distribution lines, from which homes and businesses received 100 percent of the power that they used.
Fast-forward to today, and our grid is beginning to behave very differently. Customers are becoming generators — myself included — and new technologies have made transmission a two-way street. The competitive prices from clean sources of energy —from large wind farms and solar fields to rooftop solar — and the rapidly declining cost of energy storage are quickly changing the game. Low carbon has become low cost.
President Obama announced the final version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in August. The new rules set achievable targets for states to reduce carbon pollution. The incentives for renewable energy development will speed up the grid’s shift to clean power. But many electric utilities have been resistant to change. Most operate as monopolies and are regulated at the state level by sympathetic public commissions. To maintain consistent profits, they often rely on what has worked in the past. In the current landscape, however, they have both new opportunities and new responsibilities to adapt and provide flexibility for consumers who want to reduce their carbon footprints and save money on their electric bills.
Innovative private sector companies are already producing the technologies that will drive the grid’s transition. The American solar energy industry expanded rapidly in just the last five years. The cost of residential rooftop solar dropped by 45 percent from 2010 to 2015. Solar businesses created 174,000 jobs and are completing a new project on a home or business every two and a half minutes.
Tesla was in the spotlight in May when it unveiled its Powerwall, a home battery pack that can store rooftop solar or provide emergency backup power. While Tesla has attracted media attention, numerous new technologies are driving down storage cost while dramatically increasing our ability to manage grid supply and demand.
This will help provide backup power during emergencies. It will allow utilities to cut costs by reducing the need to build new power plants. Most importantly, it will allow us to time-shift power from intermittent renewable sources from peak producing hours — noontime solar and nighttime wind — to the hours of peak demand.
The sun alone delivers more than twice as much energy each year to the earth’s surface than we have ever gotten from fossil fuels. SolarCity, the nation’s leading provider of rooftop solar, estimates that it is mounting an array on a new house every three minutes. To date, the company has helped more than 200,000 households in 18 states install panels.
As generation and storage technologies improve and become less expensive in the coming years — think of how fast computers and smartphones have advanced in the last decade — economics will drive new electrical generation consistently in the direction of clean, pollution-free power.
When we push toward a clean energy future, we will reach our carbon reduction goals together far more quickly than we can acting individually. That is the inherent power of the grid as an amplifier of individual efforts.
Businesses and households will generate and store clean power alongside traditional utilities. Utilities will provide services and not just power. Electric cars will become another power customer and offer up critical storage to buffer the grid during peak use. With generation points and backup power decentralized, our power system will become cheaper, cleaner and more reliable.
Given the impacts we are seeing from climate change — from longer droughts and bigger wildfires to extreme weather and rising sea levels — the federal government must help make this transition as rapid, smooth and economically beneficial as possible. It is with these goals in mind that we need to support these legislative policies that bring our grid into the 21st century:
1. Continued support of renewables through the solar investment tax credit and the renewable energy production tax credit or the removal of subsidies for carbon-based fuels.
2. The development and implementation of grid-based storage both in front of and behind the meter.
3. Freedom to connect power and storage to the grid with a fair methodology for accounting and distributing the costs and benefits of power and grid use.
4. A fair way to site regional transmission that is sensitive to community and environmental concerns without giving individual political subdivisions veto authority to prevent any progress.
5. Broad energy efficiency legislation designed to make sure we use our remaining fossil fuels conservatively.
We have a moral obligation to meet the challenges of climate change head on. Smart policies offer a road map to doing this in a way that creates jobs and economic activity.
We have the resources. We have the technology. We have the human capital. The question is, do we have the will?
Heinrich is New Mexico’s junior senator, serving since 2013. He sits on the Armed Services; the Energy and Natural Resources; and the Intelligence committees.