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US Faces Crossroads On Renewable Energy Future — Go Big or Go Local


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. President Biden says he wants to promote renewable energy and hopes to completely eliminate greenhouse gases from the production of electric power in the United States by 2035. One element of that plan is spending $73 billion on thousands of miles of new power lines, part of an infrastructure spending plan. Biden reached with a bipartisan group of senators. Our guest, New York Times reporter Ivan Penn, says a sharp debate has emerged over how to spend that money on electrical power generation and transmission.

While the Biden plan sees a massive national grid of power lines fueled by wind turbines and solar farms, others want a more local approach, with solar panels and batteries in homes and businesses. Ivan Penn says the nation faces a once-in-a-generation choice over how to deliver energy to our homes, businesses and electric cars. The outcome, he writes, could shape the course of climate change and determine how the United States copes with wildfires, heat waves and other extreme weather linked to global warming.

Penn explores the issue in an article in Monday's newspaper. Ivan Penn is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy. Before coming to the Times in 2018, he covered utility and energy issues for nearly eight years at the Tampa Bay Times and then the Los Angeles Times.

Well, Ivan Penn, welcome to FRESH AIR.

IVAN PENN: It's a pleasure to be here.

DAVIES: So let's get into this. President Biden wants to move to renewable energy. What is his vision in using this infrastructure spending to replace coal and natural gas-powered plants?

PENN: Well, there are a couple of things that are sort of targeted in this, and one of the big ones is to expand and integrate the components of the electric grid. I sort of say it that way because, I mean, when we talk about the electric grid, it's actually multiple grids in states and regions, and they're not all connected. So part of the idea is you build wind farms in the area where there's lots of wind. Obviously, we have some of that. And you tie that together so that you can connect various states that don't have wind or solar power. The idea is to reduce the use of fossil fuels and obviously the emissions and to have some impact in turning the tide on climate change. The second other component, of course, is the electrification of transportation, which really heightens the need for this kind of development.

DAVIES: Right. And President Biden's vision really envisions huge economies of scale. You know, there's a photo online that accompanies your story of a solar project in Wingate, Texas. It's an aerial shot that shows rows and rows of solar panels that extend all the way to the horizon. It's really massive. So the idea is to generate a lot of power, clean energy in these concentrated wind farms and solar farms. But then you've got to get it there, and that's where the transmission lines come in, right?

PENN: That's right. So when we think of power lines - and a lot of people don't realize this - there are really sort of two categories. One is transmission, which are the really tall towers, usually the lattice metal towers. And then there's distribution. These are typically those wooden poles that provide the wires to your house. And part of the issue is that if you have these massive solar farms or wind farms in the desert or in more rural Midwest regions. To get it to the population centers, you're going to have to tie in more of that generation to the grid network. And so you're going to need more transmission lines.

DAVIES: Right. So we're talking about tens of billions of dollars on new transmission lines, right?

PENN: That's right. You know, these are expensive projects. And, you know, there's also a lot of politics involved in that. They're expensive projects. They're well-paying jobs which are, you know, tied to our unions. The unions are a big player in that. And these large-scale utility projects - the transmission, the generation, you know, that's very different from if I put a solar panel on my roof. Those are largely non-union jobs. So there's, you know, there are those kinds of elements which also do play into the cost. You know, the unions obviously want to make sure that people are getting, you know, fair compensation.

DAVIES: And construction unions in the United States do wield some clout. All right. So let's talk about the other model, I mean, the one that is more decentralized. Explain what the choice is here.

PENN: Sure. So the centralized, the utility scale, these kind of solar farms that you described, like in in Wingate, Texas, on the - what we call the distributive side, you have rooftop solar, the solar panels on our homes or businesses and batteries in your garage, the Tesla battery or their - one of their big competitors, Sonnen (ph) battery. These companies that provide energy storage right in your home and also in commercial and industrial situations.

Then you have what we call microgrids. So you have the individual homeowner or business that can have their solar and storage. But then you can have a community one. That microgrid may include a collection of solar panels, not as big as the massive solar farm, but it'll have maybe a carport over a parking lot and that may have a battery as well. But these aren't as big as utility size. But they're the medium in-between individual homeowners and businesses and the utility scale. So those - the combination of the individual business and microgrid systems are more the distributive side but, you know, obviously not generating the kind of power that a large-scale power plant can provide.

DAVIES: Right. Although, I guess the argument is if everybody or almost everybody does it, you can generate a lot of power a little at a time. Does a microgrid - are we talking about a handful of homes? Are we talking about a city of 2,500 or 10,000? What do we mean by a microgrid?

PENN: Well, it's going to range in size. I mean, there are some microgrids that are supplying development. There is an apartment complex in Salt Lake City, Utah, that has batteries in every unit, a 600-unit apartment building, solar on the rooftop of the complex. And what they're able to do is they call it a battery swarm and are able to harness the power of every battery in that apartment complex and supply that to the grid. That's a pretty massive sort of system that's both individual and a microgrid.

Then you also have, you know, large commercial and industrial projects. You know, your major tech companies obviously are doing a lot of this because of the massive data servers and all that they're dealing with that use a lot of electricity. So they have huge solar systems on the tops of their complexes - still not a utility scale solar farm but pretty large. You even see some of this at airports, pretty large solar farms, but again, not as big as that kind of massive solar farm in the desert.

DAVIES: You know, I know that, you know, solar panels are already in growing use. And it's interesting. You tell a story in your - in the article that you wrote about a woman in California who needed reliable power for medical equipment, including, you know, oxygen tanks and pumps and the like 'cause she had had some serious medical issues, and they were having blackouts there - it really made a difference for her to have her solar grid, didn't it?

PENN: It really did. The challenge, of course, for California has been multiple years of historic wildfires and many of them caused by some of the utilities equipment here in California, most notably the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, where 85 people died. The utility Pacific Gas and Electric was actually charged and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter because equipment tied to one of those transmission towers in its network failed.

And so they've been taking steps like cutting off power to their customers in high-wind situations. That's left people sometimes for days without power. And a person like the woman you mentioned - 87 years old, a cancer survivor in Napa, Calif., wine country - she could not afford, healthwise, to be without power for days on end, and so she invested in rooftop solar and a battery because she felt, I could not depend on the power company to make sure that I had my oxygen equipment, my appliances, because of now years of wildfires and actions that may mean no power.

DAVIES: Let's just explore that particular issue for a moment of transmission equipment starting wildfires. How does that happen?

PENN: Well, in this particular case, you had a piece of equipment that was 100 years old - a significant fact because, in the case of Pacific Gas and Electric, they had even reported to federal regulators that the useful life of these towers was 75 years. So this tower was 25 years past its useful life. And in an area where there are really high winds in, particularly, the fall - those winds sweep through the mountains and valleys in that area, and prior to the Camp Fire, just a couple of years earlier, those winds had blown through along that line and knocked down some of those towers.

So part of the issue was a maintenance and repair and replacement concern that PG&E did not follow through on. And they have been cited and convicted in multiple cases now related to failure to maintain and upgrade their equipment, both on transmission lines - trimming trees and all of that - and also on their gas pipelines, which - there was an explosion in a neighborhood that killed other people in the San Francisco Bay Area because they did not maintain their equipment. The transmission and, again, distribution lines - if they suffer high winds, you run the risk of those wires breaking free, sparking and causing a fire.

DAVIES: All right. Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We're speaking with Ivan Penn. He covers alternative energy for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Ivan Penn. He's a reporter covering alternate energy for The New York Times. He's written recently about a debate over proposed infrastructure spending on clean power generation and transmission - whether to focus on large wind and solar farms, new transmission lines to carry that energy to cities or to instead focus on local solutions, including rooftop solar panels, batteries and microgrids.

OK. So let's get back to this choice between the more centralized model and the more localized model. You mentioned that there are these microgrids, which can involve batteries in an apartment complex or a company that has lots of, you know, IT servers. In those cases, are they essentially off the local utility grid? They don't need transmission lines from elsewhere. They are self-sufficient.

PENN: It's almost virtually impossible, the way our policies work, to completely cut the cord when it comes to being connected to the grid. The utilities actually are required to provide universal service to everyone. What we do is you can offset your cost by putting solar on your roof and a battery in your garage, so you're not using as much power, or maybe no power at all literally from the grid, but you're not disconnected from the grid.

And part of the problem that we do have right now is your solar panels - they function in connection with the grid. So if the grid goes down, as we have seen here in California - and we saw in other areas around the country where there have been climate change issues - your panels are ineffective. You need a battery that stores energy and can provide power to your home just like any other generator would because you are connected to the grid. You're just reducing the amount of power or maybe even eliminating the amount of power that you pay for from the utility company.

And really - sorry to be cliche, but the battery is sort of viewed as battery technology, the holy grail of the energy industry because the ability to store energy and even massive amounts of energy become the critical piece in being able to control your individual life, as well as, on the large utility scale, being able to manage the electrons 'cause we can produce a lot of power with solar, especially during the day, but if you don't have anywhere to use it, store it, then you either have to get rid of it. Or that can cause a whole nother set of problems.

DAVIES: Where are we on developing better, more powerful batteries?

PENN: So the technologies are really, really increasing rapidly. The costs are coming down a great deal, sort of following the trend line that we saw in the price of solar going down. But it's still a little high. The hope of offsetting that is - you know, we're using lithium-ion battery technology, which, obviously, that element, lithium, is significant. We have huge lithium deposits in the United States that have gone untapped. And so the administration is focusing on mining efforts, some that are being viewed as more environmentally friendly than others that are more traditional mining, that are more problematic.

But that would help to reduce the costs because right now, all of the lithium comes from South America, Australia. It gets processed in China. So that's a lot of expense. So if you can do more of this domestically or almost all of it domestically, then that will help bring down the costs of the battery, increase the resource. So that also will reduce the cost and then also create new jobs. And then there's also other technologies. There are other elements that go into lithium ion like cobalt, that comes from places like the Congo. And they're trying to eliminate that from future technologies. So technological improvements are really developing and helping to reduce some of those costs.

DAVIES: Are a lot of companies developing these new batteries and battery technologies? Is Tesla a lot of it? I mean, is Elon Musk's leadership critical here?

PENN: Tesla, obviously, is very big in this space, both on the residential side as well as the utility scale side. But there are a variety of other players involved in battery development, as well as even in the research and development. You know, we have the great benefit of the national labs that are doing extensive study on improving the technologies. But I mentioned also about zinc-air batteries. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire in Los Angeles, owner of the Los Angeles Times and other entities around LA, he developed a battery, a zinc-air battery, that he's been testing and developing for the good part of the last decade in various parts around the world - some areas here in the United States that have found it to be a very beneficial technology. Duke Energy uses it. And that allows a larger amount of energy storage and, possibly, for a lower cost. So there's a variety of technologies out there.

DAVIES: Do you know how much it would cost to have solar panels and batteries installed for just a regular, average-sized home, ballpark?

PENN: Well, solar and batteries, I mean, people are spending in the 20 to $30,000 range, depending on size. I mean, some are much less. It also depends on whether there is a state rebate or not. You know, there's been a federal tax credit that was 30% and has been reduced. There are efforts - and there literally is a letter sent to Congress from the Solar Energy Industries Association really asking for the extension of the tax credit back to 30% for solar and to add a tax credit for batteries to help to bring those costs down.

DAVIES: So let's just explore this for a second. If those favoring more local solutions dominate this debate and more money goes to their end of it, what is it spent for? How does that spawn new local solutions?

PENN: You have multiple levels of concern. And I'll start with a really big one, and that is if we don't focus on centralized, there is a concern that those who can most afford it will be the ones who get the rooftop solar and the batteries. And that will leave the disadvantaged, the poor and the low income left on the grid to cover the cost of maintaining the grid. This is a big argument in the debate. The idea is, shift more resources over to the distributive side. And help those who can least afford the solar and the batteries. And take the pressure off of them so that they aren't the only ones left covering the costs of the grid.

But then the reality is we're talking about higher costs for the middle class, right? I mean, that's the core group that's really funding the grid because we also have programs that assist the disadvantaged with their electricity, heating. But the big question is, how do you bring equity, as well as how do you address the question of, you know, a very American issue of a person's ability to be able to be in control of their life? - in this case, in regard to how they power their lives.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Ivan Penn. He's a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy for The New York Times. He'll be back to talk more about energy issues after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times reporter Ivan Penn. In a Monday newspaper article, he wrote about a sharp debate that's emerged over how to spend money in a potential congressional infrastructure bill targeted for clean power generation and transmission. Should the nation bank on big solar and wind farms and new transmission lines to carry that power to cities, or should we go local, focusing on rooftop solar panels, batteries and microgrids. Ivan Penn is based in Los Angeles covering alternative energy for the Times.

So tell us who's on which side in this debate. I mean, you know, nothing happens in Congress without people lining up their allies. Who's for which emphasis?

PENN: Well, you know, here's where it gets really, really interesting because there are components of this where there's interests on both sides of the aisle. So let me start with the distributive piece, that rooftop solar and battery side. What we saw particularly in the Southeast, in Florida in particular, we saw members of the Tea Party and the Christian Coalition aligned with the likes of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups - the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy - in support of rooftop solar. They locked arms together to say we want rooftop solar. You know, there's not many issues where you can - where you'll find those groups joined together. Very strange bedfellows.

Then, on the large-scale side, you've got to look at what goes on in the Midwest. And there are conservative members of Congress that are very big proponents of renewables because the Midwest and West in states that would be looked at as red states, that's where a lot of the wind power is. So those are important jobs and investments that they're concerned about. And then there's a third component, which is really - becomes fascinating. And I'll step outside of our borders for a second because I did a story with a colleague who's based in Australia, a big supporter of coal, big coal country and very conservative. They had the highest penetration of rooftop solar than anywhere in the world. And that's because of the economics.

So what they saw was - and we see this in places like Texas and some other states that might be - might lean or are a little more conservative, it's not climate change that's the driver for them. It is the economics. And so you've got a really complex debate going on where you have the fossil fuel interests, but you have the reality that people are dealing with that - you know what? - it's economically better for me to put solar on my on my roof and a battery in my garage than paying the cost that I would have to pay from the utility or just that simple fact that, you know, this means jobs for our state. You know, I mean, so there's - it's not a one side or the other.

DAVIES: But let me come back to the basic question we started with. I mean, you write in the piece that this is a once-in-a-generation choice, you know, about how we're going to transmit power to energy to fuel our homes, businesses and electric cars. If the decision in Congress or in however the - this funding is administered is to not invest in big transmission lines which would carry power from massive solar farms and wind farms to cities, what does that mean? What happens?

PENN: Here's one significant caveat to all of the distributive argument. It's not an issue of pushing the pendulum all the way to one side because, almost universally, everyone agrees there's some level of transmission that has to be built. The question is, how much? And also, how the various components of the grid are tied together by state and by region. You can also sort of throw all the money at it, and it doesn't mean we're going to get the transmission because they've also got to deal with the permitting and also the opposition from those people in the areas where the transmission goes, sort of the classic not-in-my-backyard arguments.

In the end, it's being argued that, well, if we don't do it, then it will destabilize the grid because you can't depend on solar that only produces when the sun shines and when the wind blows. The variable that is given the most consideration on either side is the impact of energy storage. And right now, you know, the eye toward lithium ion battery technology, though there are some other technologies like zinc-air that have been showing great promise for large amounts of storage. And there's also over-a-hundred-year technology that we've used in energy storage and that's pumped hydro plants.

These elements are really sort of critical to reducing the need for certain levels of transmission. There are arguments that have been made that rooftop solar and batteries have reduced large amounts of transmission because, again, you're - when you are localized, when you're in the area of getting the power to the house, that's distribution. That's not the big lattice tower transmission lines going long distances.

DAVIES: You know, let's look at Texas and California because last year, extreme heat in California caused widespread power outages. And then just a few months ago in Texas, extreme winter weather caused life-threatening blackouts in very large areas of the state. Many people died. You know, when I look at these shortages, these outages that occurred, I gather one issue is, how much extra capacity does the grid have, do the power generators have? Do regulations require them to maintain extra capacity in case there's a crisis?

But the other thing I gather is that just a lot of the equipment failed under these terrible conditions, particularly in Texas. You had pipeline - gas pipelines freezing. You know, for decades, climate scientists have warned us that we're going to have more extreme weather of all kinds. Shouldn't we have seen this coming?

PENN: So part of it goes to regulation and lack of regulation. So in some places, there are requirements for weatherizing equipment that you didn't have in Texas. There are also situations where there may be requirements for maintenance and upgrades that aren't followed like we saw with Pacific Gas & Electric, where instead of actually doing the work, they spent money on bonuses and paying shareholders instead of taking care of the equipment.

So you can have a regulated situation like California or a lack of regulation like in Texas, but the question is, you know, whether or not anyone actually does anything or anyone enforces the things being done. I mean, you need the regulation piece, but you also need the enforcement piece 'cause it can be there and the utilities actually not do it. So even with the warnings, it doesn't mean that that's what's going to happen.

DAVIES: You know, there's a lot of anger about what happened in Texas last year. And, you know, the power company in California actually pled guilty to manslaughter charges in the Camp Fire And has been - has faced criminal charges in others. I mean, is all of this anger leading to demands for nationalizing any energy companies? Is that happening?

PENN: Well, I don't know about nationalizing them, but definitely pushes to make them either government-run or customer-owned. There have been efforts all around the country to end the agreements that allow the investor-owned utilities to service particular cities. San Diego had a very big effort to try to break away from San Diego Gas & Electric. San Francisco, after all of the wildfires in Northern California and the issues with Pacific Gas & Electric and its equipment, the city wanted to create a municipal-run utility and be a government-run. In San Jose, their argument - the mayor there wanted to create that kind of customer-run utility. So maybe not so much sort of nationalized, although, you know, we have the federally run Tennessee Valley Authority, but there's more free us from the investor-owned utility kinds of arguments than necessarily a nationalized.

DAVIES: You know, as President Biden seeks bigger transmission lines - to take clean power generated by huge solar and wind farms to cities is kind of his vision for the future - I mean, there is the problem that it's not easy to site new big transmission lines. Right? I mean, people resist them for aesthetic and environmental reasons. This is hard, isn't it?

PENN: It can take 10 years to get a new transmission line up and operating. And a lot of that very much has to do with the concerns of communities. I mean, there have been ongoing fights all over the country over new transmission proposals, getting the clear right of way to put them in place. And because people don't want to see these massive transmission lines running through their communities, that's a real challenge. And to be clear, I mean the administration is not strictly saying new transmission and large-scale electricity equipment and no rooftop solar in batteries. I mean, they're looking at a, quote-unquote, "all of the above" strategy. But the big thing is, you know - which side do you lean on? - because the resources are limited. If you keep spending money on the large scale, somebody's got to pay for that. And how much does that limit the individual's ability, if their electric bills are going up, to be able to afford to do anything else?

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take a break. We are speaking with Ivan Penn. He's a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we are speaking with Ivan Penn. He covers alternative energy for The New York Times.

You wrote a piece last month about some of the challenges that face President Biden as he seeks to build more offshore wind farms. And you begin with a stunning statistic about where we are as opposed to Europe in locating wind farms offshore. Can you share that with us?

PENN: Sure, yeah. It was the thing that struck me, obviously, the most because this is the way we began the story. But there are 5,400 offshore wind turbines in Europe, and we have seven here in the United States.

DAVIES: A total of seven. President Biden wants 2,000 turbines in the water over the next 8 1/2 years. First of all, you know, it would just seem that it would be a lot harder to build these big turbines in the water than on land. Why are offshore wind farms attractive?

PENN: Well, because, one, the wind is really good in some of those locations offshore. And it also provides access to clean energy for some areas - you know, the East Coast particularly, I mean, you look at areas like Virginia and Maryland and the Carolinas. You're not going to necessarily be able to put up the kind of wind farms that you see in the Midwest or in the far West. I mean, they also don't have the solar ability of California deserts and Arizona or Texas or Florida. So if they're going to do clean energy, then they're real possibility is to go offshore and do wind where the wind is good and you can bring that power onshore.

DAVIES: And one of the problems in building an offshore wind farm is that you need huge ships to hold these huge pieces of the turbine. I mean, this is just a practical thing. And it turns out there's a federal law that makes that really hard. Do you want to explain this?

PENN: Yeah. So one person raised the question about the scale that the administration is looking at in the timeframe that they're looking at. And the person said, but we don't even have a boat. (Laughter). And what they were referring to is, you know, we have, in the United States, the Jones Act which was really designed to protect our shipping industry.

DAVIES: It's the shipbuilding industry, right?

PENN: Right - and also various parts of the industry, as well, because the trouble is you can't use a ship flying under a foreign flag to go from, in this case, a U.S. port to an offshore wind site. It needs to fly under a U.S. flag. So the most two recent turbines that were put in the water last year, they had to get ships because we don't have any large enough to be able to carry these huge components. They got ships from Europe.

And because those ships could not go from the U.S. port to the turbine site, those ships had to have - go to a staging site in Canada and transport the equipment from the staging site in Canada. Obviously, that's an expensive way to get something done. And if you're talking about 2,000 turbines, that's going to be really expensive and a nonstarter.

So Dominion Energy, they said, well, we're going to build one of these ships that's needed so it can handle these very, very large components. And then others are starting to work on that as well. But that is a real hinderance for this effort. You need the ships that can carry really large turbine components.

DAVIES: Right. So we - there is literally not a single U.S. vessel that can handle turbine parts this big, right?

PENN: Literally, not a single vessel at this time.

DAVIES: Right. And when Dominion Energy used a European ship and took it out of Canada, it lengthened the time of construction enormously, right?

PENN: Yeah, so what would take a few weeks for Europe to put in water now - I mean, granted, they have built an industry. And when you're - you know, I mean, you're over 5,000 in the water, so you've kind of figured this out. They can do it in a few weeks. It took - because they had to do all of the planning, as well as, you know, the ships going back and forth to Canada - it took them a year to get this project done for just two turbines. Now, and, of course, it's going to be a bit more simplistic than that once you start ramping up to these larger offshore wind farms. But, you know, it was a real lesson in the complexity that we're looking at.

DAVIES: You know, we began by talking about this debate in infrastructure spending and this choice to make on whether we're going to emphasize centralized solutions - you know, big wind and solar farms and big transmission lines taking that clean energy to cities - or emphasizing more, you know, local solutions, rooftop projects, rooftop solar panels, batteries, microgrids. It's not easy to have a national debate about a policy issue, especially one that's complicated. I mean, just look at when we try and talk about health care - I mean, there are so many different interests that may not exactly be looking at all the issues in good faith. Is this an issue that's going to get a public debate? How do you follow it?

PENN: The debate is very strong already, and we see it just in the volume of page views on the story. I mean, my job is to write about poles and wires.


PENN: And that isn't all the time the most attractive issue to read about. But, I mean, my job is to help people understand why this is important. And the page views that we get on these stories are showing that people are paying attention. It does get - look and feel complex because it is poles, wires, electricity, engineering, all that. But people have to remember that this boils down to a very, very simple thing - it is how we power our lives and who pays and who gets paid.

DAVIES: Well, Ivan Penn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PENN: This was my pleasure.

DAVIES: Ivan Penn is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy for The New York Times.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan considers Gloria Naylor's landmark debut novel "The Women Of Brewster Place." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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