Newsletter: The rooftop solar vs. transmission showdown that wasn’t

Reports of a clean energy schism are generating a lot of solidarity.

man climbing transmission tower
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If you read The New York Times recently, you may have gotten the impression that the clean energy industry is riven by disagreement.

Reporters Ivan Penn and Clifford Krauss tee up the drama between a small-scale, solar-powered microgrid camp and a bunch of big utilities and Wall Street firms, plus President Biden, who want to build massive transmission wires:

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The divide between those who want more power lines and those calling for a more decentralized energy system has split the renewable energy industry and the environmental movement.

#EnergyTwitter to NYT: We don’t like your dichotomy

Clean-energy analysts took to Twitter to push back on the depiction of a conflict between a big grid and small-scale solar.

Some companies and nonprofits absolutely prioritize building more local solar and battery installations to provide resilient clean energy for communities. 

And plenty of people trying to build transmission lines have failed due to local opposition. But those defeats are less about philosophical objections to a more interconnected grid, and more about NIMBYism, localized environmental concerns and resistance from fossil fuel operators that want to maximize their profits. 

To the extent that transmission advocates and distributed energy advocates run into trouble, it’s not from each other. Many groups are working on both:

  • The Biden administration actively supports both transmission expansion and localized solar-battery microgrids. 
  • Utilities from California to the Carolinas are shoring up the wires in the face of climate change while building local microgrids to keep the lights on in at-risk areas.
  • The solar industry encompasses both the rooftop installers, who often pitch their products as alternatives to unreliable utility networks, and large-scale developers, who absolutely need transmission lines to ship clean power to market.

Indeed, the authors note further down that the story’s overarching dichotomy may be coming on a bit strong:

In all probability, there will be a mix of solutions that include more transmission lines and rooftop solar panels.

But that line doesn’t come until the 15th paragraph. 

Follow the money

Clean energy is growing at both the local and the macro levels. If you’re looking for tension, you could find it by asking who profits from the build-out. 

It’s entirely possible to expand transmission infrastructure in a way that hands enormous piles of money to utilities. It’s also possible to conduct transmission expansion via competitive processes with protections for customers against excessive cost overruns. Utilities and their investors benefit from the former option.

On the flipside, unit prices for rooftop solar are several times higher than for a vast solar farm in the desert. You can imagine that trying to power, say, New York City with only local solar would amount to an exorbitant transfer of wealth from residents to whoever won those contracts.

But there are already places where solar-battery microgrids make clear financial sense (see below!). And experts keep improving our understanding of how a strong national grid and distributed energy systems actually bolster each other. Canary Media’s David Roberts wrote a whole piece on that a couple of months ago. 

One of his sections is actually titled The misguided battle between centralized and distributed energy.”

How are we doing on solar-powered microgrids?

Canary Media just posted a dispatch from the frontlines of the solar microgrid sector. It’s a sign of both how far that technology has come — and how much work remains. 

The hook is that a remote town on the coast of Western Australia proved it could run on only renewables and batteries for a period of time. 

That’s a big deal. We used to rely on the spinning mass of old-school turbines to keep grid voltage and frequency in the right place. Now you can maintain a stable grid with the inverters that control the flow of power from solar and batteries.

Think of that as another blow to renewables skepticism. But the details of the project should caution against overly rosy depictions of the small-scale solar revolution.

  • Onslow, the town in question, is home to just 848 people.
  • The fossil-fuel-free breakthrough lasted for 80 minutes on a perfect” day in May, with lots of sun and low electricity demand.
  • Achieving that took two years of work by utility Horizon Power and mellifluously named gridtech company PXiSE. That’s because precisely coordinating hundreds of power devices in real time is pretty complicated in practice.

Horizon Power expects it can replicate that fully renewable performance and keep it going longer than the initial test. But this proof of concept leaves plenty of work to be done before this kind of microgrid becomes commonplace. 

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.