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Iowa’s energy future is bright, and windy

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 16, 2009 7:50 AM

Modern energy debates can be dizzying, to say the least. Arguments occur at every level. Completely renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind are inconsistently available. Nuclear energy does not have the toxic emissions found at coal-powered energy plants, but what about the waste? Coal is still the most prevalent resource available for producing electricity, but it is environmentally disastrous; is there really such thing as clean coal? All of these debates put the cart before the horse, because without grid reform, even the cleanest energy is ineffective and inefficient.

The century-old method of creating and transporting electricity in this country is seriously out-of-date. Many of the central power stations were constructed far from large cities because of concerns about pollution. Electricity is pumped from these stations to homes, businesses, and factories over large distances through America’s 200,000 miles of outmoded power lines. Officials estimate that 5 to 7 percent the nation’s electricity is lost through these wires; however, creating new lines is a political minefield. Utilities are reluctant to expand or upgrade current power plants because they would be required to install expensive, modern pollution controls. Constructing new lines would demand cooperation among local, state, and federal jurisdictions, which is no doubt a difficult undertaking in and of itself.

Such a dilapidated grid presents a palpable handicap to renewable energy projects. To transport energy from new wind-and-solar powered fields, the United States will require nearly 20,000 miles of new transmission lines. It will also require new computers, sensors, and communication gear to direct energy across the nation, rather than the analog systems that currently manage the network. Because energy produced through windmills and solar cells is inconsistent, an automated grid will be imperative when controlling the perpetually fluctuating power generated through renewable resources.

In Iowa, ITC Holdings Corp. sees the need for new grid lines as an opportunity. It has proposed a project to construct two 765-kilovolt transmission lines through Iowa and a third along the Iowa-Minnesota border. These transmission lines would transport energy from wind farms to metropolitan areas. The lack of transmission links has been a serious impediment to the development of wind energy. Many wind farms are constructed near current transmission connections, rather than where the best resources are located. ITC Holdings isn’t the only company looking into grid expansion or reform; Google and General Electric recently cohosted a conference called Zeitgeist, in which grid reform and smart energy were topics of discussion.

“I don’t think this is hard …” Jeff Immelt, the CEO/chairman of General Electric, said at Zeitgeist. “Energy actually isn’t hard. The technology exists; it doesn’t have to be invented. It needs to be applied … We make the gadgets — smart electric meters, things like that. People like Google can make the software, which makes the system. That’s the key to renewable energy.”

Google’s energy plans don’t stop with grid updates; the company also wants to focus on personal energy use. Google intends to make homes energy smart, so appliances are able to discern when to power up and power down, based on the cost of energy. Currently, utility companies send customers bills but don’t provide much additional information. Google believes if consumers knew how energy fluctuated during certain hours and seasons, where in their house they were wasting energy, and which appliances used the most energy, they would regulate themselves. Access to such information could lead households to save between 5 and 15 percent on monthly bills. This might not seem like much of a decrease, but if half of American households cut their demand by only 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of removing 8 million cars from the road.

Energy reform is not going to be easily achieved. It will require a lot of headaches, cooperation, and adaptation. Innovations such as Google’s ambitious home-monitoring system could be important, but evolution in the way America transports its energy is of paramount importance if we hope to legitimately pursue “Green Energy.” Because of our state’s leadership in wind-generated energy production, Iowa lawmakers need to get behind moves to transform the energy grid not only to help Iowans, but to help Iowans help the nation.


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