Electrical engineers are using tablets to monitor the operation of the solar cells. Renewable energy concepts.

Clean Energy Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Both science and our everyday reality are now screaming an inconvenient truth: Our climate is changing and forcing us to urgently respond. To meet this challenge, we must both build resilient infrastructure capable of adapting to extreme, unprecedented weather and quickly transition our energy system away from the fossil fuels driving climate change.

There have long been unhelpful and misguided debates over which is the better route for energy transformation: energy produced in larger “utility scale” facilities located in prime locations and transmitted to load centers, or local, smaller scale electricity production—such as rooftop solar. A recent New York Times headline “More Power Lines or Rooftop Solar Panels: The Fight Over Energy’s Future” portrayed these mutually beneficial solutions as in competition with one another. While the actual article makes a good case for including both solutions, it pits two of the most important tools in our arsenal against one another.

This framing distracts us from the imperative of making progress, as fast as possible, in both reducing heat-trapping pollution and addressing the equity and resilience challenges associated with climate-change driven extreme weather. Today, most clean energy advocates, analysts, and planners envision large roles for both utility scale and local power from wind and solar located throughout the United States. And the good news is that we can do it cost-effectively because solar and wind, in addition to producing zero emissions, are the least-cost power sources.

Multiple recent studies – including from Princeton, MIT, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)—have shown that modernizing and expanding our nation’s transmission system is needed to build the wind and solar we need. At the same time, RMI analysis shows that local solar and storage supports communities during outages from extreme weather and other threats. Lastly, Vibrant Clean Energy shows there is even more cost savings when planners optimize local and utility scale power synergistically.

It makes intuitive sense that the benefits of both utility scale and local power are largest when we can share that power freely within and between regions. When one region has excess wind or solar power, it can send it to distant urban and industrial centers. And, when a region’s utility-scale power is scarce or disrupted, local power can help keep the lights on, especially if it is supported regional neighbors or even the region’s neighbors’ neighbors. Finally, by building and connecting both utility-scale and local power, the entire country can share the resilience and economic benefits.

So what are the next steps? Critically, the pending infrastructure legislation in Congress should include both financial support and enabling reforms that make it easier to build and pay for inter-regional transmission, utility-scale power, and local power. More locally, states should both support local power and encourage their utilities to plan synergistically with their neighbors.

Our clean energy future is not a contest between local power and an interconnected grid—it is a resilient, modern, and clean union of local solar, utility scale power, and interconnecting transmission. The solution is “both and” not “or.”