Near wheat fields in rural Kansas, wind turbines spin away, producing clean energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change. But they do contribute to the local economy. Smiling at the turbines on his farm, Ted Bannister says, “Now on a windy day, I’m willing to buy lunch for somebody, because that’s money in my pocket.”
Midwestern wind is so abundant, in theory, it could even light up east coast cities. Unfortunately, most Kansas wind power never gets that far. Just as it’s impossible to drive fast in a traffic jam, today’s regionally-focused transmission lines make it impossible to send energy across the nation.
“[Transmission lines] are not like highways because the on-ramps and off-ramps are so incredibly expensive,” Bannister explained. “State, federal, county and then certainly on the business side of it there, they’ve been much more competitive than cooperative.”
And there’s another problem. Even in windswept Kansas, the wind doesn’t always blow. In sunny Arizona, the sun doesn’t always shine. To power the grid during those times, utility companies depend on fossil fuels, an expensive, but vital, redundancy.
Renewable energy nation
Meteorologist Alexander MacDonald remembers the day he realized it didn’t have to be that way. He was having a conversation with some colleagues about the cost of renewable energy, at a climate change conference six years ago.
“This guy over a beer says, ‘No one’s going to do anything. Nobody’s going to accept a doubling of cost.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, wind and solar energy are really cheap. It should work.’” He recalls thinking that the U.S. is so big geographically, the wind is always blowing somewhere. And tapping all that wind potential all at once might reduce the need to maintain expensive backup fossil fuels.