By Evelyn Teel
Wind energy is an incredible resource with incredible potential. The generation costs are low, the efficiency of turbines continues to increase, and the threat to birds continues to decline. An unfortunate irony, however, is that the places with the most prolific wind energy tend to be places with relatively little demand for power.
West Texas, the Dakotas, Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle – these are all places where the wind blows powerfully and fairly consistently. However, getting electricity generated by that wind to the population centers that most need it is challenging in the current environment. The decentralized nature of the US power grid means that moving electricity across state lines and between regions is difficult, and sometimes seemingly impossible.
Several people have envisioned networks of high-voltage transmission lines that could move power from areas of abundant wind energy (as well as solar energy) to areas that could use that power. Russell Gold’s book Superpower centers on one of those people.
Michael Skelly conceptualized a series of high-voltage, direct current transmission lines radiating out from the center of the United States to points east and west. Little did he realize, however, quite how complicated it would be to implement that vision. With differing economic, political, regulatory, and cultural realities in different states, overlain by the interests and powers of the federal government, Michael Skelly’s company, Clean Line Energy Partners, would require agreement from myriad stakeholders in order to make their project a reality.
Though Superpower focuses primarily on Michael Skelly – including earlier ventures that prepared him for the task at hand – the author incorporates a wealth of information about the history of the electric grid and the energy field. He provides fascinating background about major developments that have led to the system we have in place today, from the first factory with generator-powered electric lights to the first centralized power plants to the first “experiment” in which wind energy was fed back into the electric grid. He also illustrates the massive declines in the cost to generate wind energy, along with the growth in the size of wind farms.
The electric grid has evolved over time such that electricity is generated and used within the same general area – first, within the same building; then, the same city; and now, the same region. In order for renewable energy to provide a sizeable percentage of our electricity needs, the next step in that evolution will need to be transmission lines that allow electricity to be moved across regions. The book’s extensive discussions of the various players in this drama – utility companies, public service commissions, elected officials, landowners, federal agencies – and their interests and motivations bring clarity to the challenges facing anyone attempting to modernize the grid. It is also fascinating to learn how differently various states approach the energy industry, and how state and federal powers intersect.
Russell Gold is clearly very sympathetic to Michael Skelly and comes across at times as more cheerleader than reporter. However, looking beyond the fanfare, the reader can gain a strong understanding of the challenges facing the US as we seek to incorporate more renewable energy, update the electric grid, and increase the resilience of our power supply.
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Copyright 2019 by Avalon Energy® Services LLC