In April 2007, a helicopter landed in a backyard in Johnson Valley, California, a desert hamlet of 440 residents on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park. "One of the neighbors went out and asked them what they were doing just a few hundred feet from his house," Jim Harvey, a local landowner, recalls. "They said, 'We're the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and congratulations! You're the lucky lottery winners of a brand new power line that's going to come right through the middle of your town.' "
That power line is called Green Path North -- an 85-mile-long high-voltage transmission wire from Los Angeles through public and private lands, connecting the city to potential geothermal and solar-thermal resources, with the whole shebang to be owned by the LADWP and paid for over the next decade by ratepayers. The cost: up to $1 billion just for the transmission line, plus untold billions for the not-yet-planned power plants themselves. Some 2,000 acres of desert would be sacrificed for a project that would, if it ever gets built, carry about 800 megawatts of renewable electricity -- enough for 600,000 homes.
Green Path North is pretty typical of the renewables push in the United States: big, expensive, slow, and spectacularly uncertain. Twenty-eight states have pledged to shift their energy mix to at least 10% renewables, and at press time, Congress was considering a national target of 15% by 2020. But if many of us see this moment as a defining one, a key opportunity to reassess how we create and use energy across the country, the federal government seems content to leave the owners of the old energy world in charge of designing the new one. Big utilities are pushing hard to do what they do best -- getting the government to subsidize construction of multi-billion-dollar, far-flung, supersize solar and wind farms covering millions of acres, all connected via outsize transmission lines. Nevada senator Harry Reid has introduced legislation to speed the way for a national "electric superhighway." (Former Vice President Al Gore is another champion.) "We need to have an efficient way to take energy created in often remote areas and move it to where it is needed," Reid said this spring on the Senate floor. "A cleaner, greener national transmission system -- an electric superhighway -- must be a top national priority."
But the men appear to be victims of a bad metaphor. There's nothing especially efficient or high tech about heavy-duty aluminum-steel cables; "line loss" -- the power lost during transmission -- runs as high as 10% on our overloaded grid. The power lines take years to propose, approve, and complete; Green Path North alone has gone through seven potential routes since 2006. And the LADWP is taking a flyer that the remote, large geothermal and solar power plants it's supposed to connect with will even be built. In all, the federal Bureau of Land Management has to date received almost 400 applications for large solar and wind plants covering 2.3 million rural acres. Only a few of those have undergone environmental assessments -- and that's only the first step in a multiyear planning, permitting, and building process. Meanwhile, utilities are making plenty of money off their existing investments in fossil-fuel power. It often seems that according to utilities, renewables are the power resource of the next decade, and always will be.
Harvey says he has a better idea. The founder of the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy, he's no NIMBY complainer. "We're just the opposite; we want it in our backyard," he says. "We want to put solar panels on our roofs and our neighbors' roofs." The nearby city of Palm Desert rolled out a program last August funding fixed-rate loans to private homeowners for rooftop solar, and within weeks, the money had been spent and panels were up on roofs. "The choice is clear," says Harvey. "If you want renewables, you want 'em clean and you want 'em fast, and the best way to do that is [rooftops]. But the utilities have been so adamant about thwarting these programs. They are the ones that are standing in our way."
The evidence is growing that privately owned, consumer-driven, small-scale, geographically distributed renewables could deliver a 100% green-energy future faster and cheaper than big power projects alone. Companies like GE and IBM are talking in terms of up to half of American homes generating their own electricity, renewably, within a decade. But distributed power -- call it the "microgrid" -- poses an existential threat to the business model the utilities have happily depended on for more than a century. No wonder so many of them are fighting the microgrid every step of the way.