Localizing the Green Energy Revolution

01 Jun 2021

The United States is on the verge of a new industrial revolution. Renewable energy could replace more than 60% of our current energy generation infrastructure in fifteen years. This change is critical, yet it risks failure. The renewable generation already built in the United States consists primarily of large-scale projects connected to transmission lines in rural areas. The expansive new generation needed to reduce carbon emissions must also be predominantly large-scale, and rural, for reasons of efficiency. But a revolution that focuses nearly exclusively on “big energy” is likely to encounter obstacles, and it has downsides that could be mitigated with a stronger focus on small-scale energy. Many rural Americans—predominantly Republican—oppose Democratic policies, particularly climate policies. Even avowedly green liberal communities have mounted stiff opposition to renewable energy in some areas. Many landowners—particularly farmers—welcome the income from renewable energy leases, but residents often object to the blinking lights, landscape disruption, unsightly wires, and other impacts of these projects. Beyond facing political opposition, a projected buildout of more than 200,000 miles of new transmission lines to support new large-scale renewable projects threatens to create negative infrastructural path dependence. This could be analogous to the federal highway network expansion of the 1950s, which largely cemented U.S. reliance on cars rather than mass transit and divided communities. We need a nationwide network of new long-distance transmission lines to connect large renewable energy generation to population centers. But small energy projects could replace the need for some of these wires. Policymakers should place greater emphasis on “small” distributed energy in the form of solar and wind generation over or near parking lots, roadways, and buildings; community-scale renewables and microgrids; and energy efficiency projects, such as weatherization of apartment buildings. This effort is likely to be more politically feasible than a revolution focused too heavily on large-scale projects. And when targeted properly, small-scale clean energy can reduce the crushing energy burdens faced by low-income communities, whether rural or urban. For the energy transition to be feasible and less objectionable from a community and present-day environmental perspective, energy policies should also ensure that large-scale renewable generation is built in ways that reduce host community impacts. Renewable or clean energy policies should prioritize projects on polluted or abandoned brownfields, as New York requires; on marginalized farmlands; or offshore. Policies should also require large-scale renewable energy developers to negotiate with host communities and offer benefits—another strategy followed in New York.