SHIFT: What would it REALLY take to green the U.S. power grid?

Last November, when the president was still President-Elect Barack Obama, we asked him to humbly consider a "New New Deal" on clean energy in the United States. The focus was on the part of the power grid that most of us are more familiar with: the part from your power pole to your house.

And a lot has happened on that front, with money set aside in the stimulus package to help people make their homes more energy efficient.

But let's talk bigger. What would it take to green the entire power grid? It would mean not just rethinking the grid. It might mean letting go of some cherished political battles.


Green Power Needs Storage

One big strike against gigawatt-scale renewable energy like solar and wind is its intermittency — the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. Especially at night when all the good stuff is on TV and I need my microwave to work.

Utility-scale storage solves this challenge. But that doesn't mean we need to wait for new cutting-edge battery technologies, although that's cool, too. Stored water has been in use for 30+ years; water is pumped into a pond on a higher level during the day when renewable energy is flowing, and then flows out through a turbine at night to generate real-time energy. Molten salts, flywheels and compressed air are other ideas.

And since power plants using nonrenewables, like natural gas, usually kick in at peak demand times when renewable-energy generation has waned for the day, we should also continue looking at biofuel replacements that would use the existing "dirty" generating technology, but in a sustainable, emission-free way.


Stop Focusing on Carbon

And speaking of emissions, let's drop the whole carbon thing. For now anyway.

Regulating carbon emissions isn't the rallying cry it was in 2007. And it's not because we have gnat-like attention spans; unemployment has doubled in a few months and the economy has been taking hit after hit since the beginning of 2008. When people lose their jobs, saving drowning polar bears becomes less relevant.

Mr. President, you've put a cap-and-trade program into your proposed budget — shelve it for a couple of years. Since emission-reducing agreements like Kyoto involve cutting carbon levels to some past level by 2050 (or some other far-out date), how much ground do we really lose by accomplishing the same goal by 2053 in the 2011 budget?

In this charged political environment, it'll defang your opponents, who either don't believe in climate change or call carbon regulation a drag on an economy that's at its worst place since the Great Depression. And if you follow my next idea, you'll get a jumpstart on those emission reductions anyway.


Pass that National Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

We mentioned this in November. RPS' in most states dictate that a certain percentage of power generated and used in the state must come from renewable sources or the utility generating that power must pay a fine. We need one to cover the whole country.

Another knock on renewable energy is its cost. Research into newer, more efficient technology will bring those costs down, but part of this inefficiency also comes from looking for the wrong kind of green power in the wrong places. And when it's left up to each state, there's more incentive to subsidize the less efficient renewable energy sources. What if wind power in Texas was so cheap it could fuel the entire state's needs and maybe those of its neighbors, at less than coal? Does it make sense for someone to get large tax breaks for solar farms there, when those subsidy dollars would be better deployed elsewhere?

A national RPS lets you use what's most effective and at hand. It would also bring in parts of the country, like the southeast, where renewable energy development has been lagging. And since the already-passed stimulus package has set aside $50 billion for renewable energy development and grid improvements, we've got a jump on it.


Break It Down

Our power grid isn't monolithic; it's a bunch of smaller pieces working together. And that's good news, since a lot of small technological breakthroughs — in generation technology, in biofuels development, in electrical flow control — can be brought to bear at the same time.

Every step taken will take us further down the road to a greener and more reliable energy system that can grow with the country, and maybe even allow us to export that expertise elsewhere.