The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis, is a nonprofit organization whose mission is "to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development." Which sounds like they've got a membership in the Leftish Buzzword of the Month Club, but that very term "local self-reliance" strikes me as deeply conservative by nature: instead of massive centralized authority, there would be scores of local and regional authorities tending to their own needs. Where it becomes left-wing is the point where all the directives are top-down.

One offshoot of ILSR is the New Rules Project. From their FAQ page:

[E]mpirical evidence has shown us that in many important areas — education, health, manufacturing, farming, the generation of power, for instance — it is not globalism and bigness, but localism and smallness that are more cost-effective, more profitable, more environmentally benign, more democratic, more enduring. The only thing that smallness lacks is power, the power to make the rules.

Despite my credentials as a Right-Wing Death Beast™, I find that statement pretty hard to dispute.

One of the, um, projects of the New Rules folks is ascertaining which of the 50 states can actually generate enough electrical power for its own needs using purely renewable methods. Oklahoma is not lacking in energy resources — we're sitting on scads of natural gas, a fair amount of which is used to generate electricity — but could we get by, kilowatt-hour-wise, without it? Apparently we can; in fact, says ILSR, at least thirty-one states could produce enough power for their own use from renewables.

The argument against this sort of thing usually runs along the lines of "Well, it's cheaper to produce it in State A and then transport it to State B." The first half of that statement is generally true, the latter half not so much:

Nevada can produce solar electricity from photovoltaic panels at a price about 20 percent less than Iowa and about 35 percent less than Pennsylvania. A typical North Dakota commercial wind turbine can produce electricity at a cost about 30 percent less than one in Ohio. But in most cases these significant variations result in modest variations in the retail cost of energy when the cost of transporting the energy is taken into account.

For example, if Ohio's electricity came from North Dakota wind farms — 1,000 miles away — the cost of constructing new transmission lines to carry that power and the electricity losses during transmission could result in an electricity cost to the customer that is about the same, or higher, than local generation with minimal transmission upgrades.

The ILSR report rates each state's capacity in terms of percentage of self-sufficiency for each of several types of renewable energy. The Oklahoma numbers:

  • Onshore (land-based) wind power: 1800%
  • Offshore wind power: none
  • Rooftop solar: 28%
  • Small hydro: 2%
  • Combined heat and power [reclaiming waste heat]: 4%
  • Conventional geothermal: none
  • Theoretical enhanced geothermal: 604%

In addition, ILSR calculates that to become purely self-sufficient just from solar, we'd have to cover 0.15% of the state's land area with the appropriate solar cells, about 103 square miles. This is probably not going to happen any time soon.

So our best bet is wind, and fortunately for us, we're moving in that direction anyway. OG&E expects to be generating 7.6% of its electricity from wind by 2012, and other electric utilities, including those owned by municipalities, are adding wind to their generation mix.

States in the Southeast don't figure to produce much in the way of wind power — except from the offshore variety, which is likely to be more expensive due to the cost of transmission lines. Rooftop solar can be a contributing factor in all states, but California and Nevada are the most promising. Montana and Alaska could score big with small hydro; Alaska also has major potential for geothermal. The most problematic of all the states seems to be Kentucky, which lacks most of these resources — there's always the sun, but that's one of the priciest options — yet even Kentucky can pull off self-sufficiency if enhanced geothermal, which requires steam injection at depths to 10 km, becomes more than just theoretical.

Still, the fact that the potential may exist does not mean that anything will come of it. In a discussion on transmission lines, ILSR points out:

Transmission lines have traditionally been justified as ways to lower the cost of energy, reduce congestion and increase reliability. But renewables won't lower energy prices, unless a stiff carbon tax is imposed that raises the price of coal-fired electricity dramatically, a very unlikely political development, at least in the short term. And if such a carbon fee were put in place, it might lead to the closure of older coal fired power plants and the introduction of more dispersed natural gas plants, freeing up transmission capacity for renewables. Moreover the variability of solar and wind energy makes it hard to justify them as ways to increase electric grid reliability.

And another alternative, nuclear power, seems better suited to large-scale megaplants rather than small, localized facilities, not least because of its ongoing NIMBY problem. Besides, it doesn't meet the current definition of "renewable," which requires natural replenishment.

Still, there's some comfort in knowing that if every last oil spigot in the world is turned off, we're not totally screwed — until we have to get to work, anyway.

The Vent

  17 October 2009

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 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill