Take a look at the map above. This Seam WI-EI is the border between the west and east interconnections. All the blue of the Midwest marks where the wind is an abundant resource. Gold in the southwest means abundant solar. Texas bathing green is both. Although the state is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels for energy production, it is in fact rich in renewable resources. If all the interconnects worked really well with each other, Texas could be the place where they meet in the middle, exporting solar and wind power to its neighbors and importing their electricity when needed. You know, like in a polar vortex.
Note the time stamps at the bottom of the map. The peak load in most places is between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., Kroposki says, as people go home and cook dinner and turn on heaters or air conditioners. If it’s 2 p.m. in Arizona, the sun is shining on solar panels just as people on the East Coast are increasing their energy use. “You could push solar energy east,” Kroposki says. Then, as the Midwest comes out of peak use, it could push wind power west.
Additionally, on days when the sun is not shining in the Southwest, these states could import wind power from Texas or the Midwest. If the wind refuses to blow in the Midwest, those states could import solar power from the Southwest or Texas. Ironically, Texas – the utility outlaw – could be a unifying force between all of these regions.
But the country must build high voltage lines to more intimately intertwine the three regions. “That sort of thing would help bring in more renewables, because you could distribute them geographically,” Kroposki says. “You could put more renewables in places where the resources are really good and move electricity more easily across the country.”
“What is delaying all this is: who is going to pay for this infrastructure?” Adds Kroposki. “It benefits everyone, but not in a way that is easy to collect.” In reality, the funding would come from the federal government. President Joe Biden has, after all, promised to build a green energy infrastructure create 10 million jobs.
However, be prepared for mountains of red tape: we’re talking miles and miles of lines crossing multiple states, each with their own regulatory hurdles. “I think we are in a world where it will continue to be difficult to install large long distance transmission lines, and we suggest greater authority for [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] to be able to do it, ”says Victor, co-author of this National Academies report. “But we have no illusions that you are going to wave a magic wand to make this problem easy.”
Until that happens, there may be another way to strengthen our grids with renewable energies at the local level: micro-grids. Blue Lake Rancheria in northern California, for example, has loaded itself with solar panels and batteries to power “Island” itself from the main network if necessary. Last fall – the top of the state more and more terrible wildfire season: the local utility has cut power in parts of California to avoid starting a fire, and some 10,000 inhabitants walked to the rancheria for fuel and supplies.
Without electricity, gas pumps don’t work and water treatment plants are offline, leading to a further water crisis, as happened in Texas. But in this case, the rancheria served as an oasis of tension. “The Blue Lake micro-grid is a small drop in the bucket for the California grid, so it didn’t make a big difference,” says Peter Lehman, founding director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University, which contributed to the development of the micro-grid. “But it’s a model for how we can react to these situations in the future.”