This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.
As President Biden continues to roll out executive orders prioritizing climate change, it is increasingly clear that there will be a relatively rapid U.S. shift toward renewable energy from the sun, wind and other sources.
Indeed, many states are already pushing ahead with ambitious renewable and clean energy policies. These policies will reduce air pollution, spur extensive economic development in rural areas and make progress on the climate front.
This “revolution,” as Biden calls it, is critical. But the bulk of renewables that have been built in the United States are large, centralized projects requiring thousands of miles of transmission lines — primarily in rural communities. A revolution that continues to prioritize these projects risks failure. It threatens to create an infrastructural path dependence like the one that “master builder” Robert Moses sparked in the 1950s. The federal highway network inspired by his plan led the United States to rely primarily on cars rather than trains and other public transit. This substantially divided communities, particularly along racial lines.
A primarily large-scale energy approach could also broaden rural opposition to Democratic policies. In most states, local governments control large and small renewable energy installations and resistance is growing to their development. Many towns and counties have substantially delayed or temporarily or permanently banned such development, citing aesthetics and other nuisances. A large-scale approach to renewables could expand this resistance and reinforce President Trump’s assertions that Democrats represent “Wall Street bankers and special interests,” not everyday people.
Residents often perceive large-scale renewable energy projects as big corporate endeavors that overtake small towns. Indeed, the world’s largest electric utility owns approximately 16 percent of the U.S. wind market. It has been a leader in constructing path breaking wind farms in rural areas around the United States, but not without objection. And an extensive rollout of large-scale renewable energy would require roughly doubling this country’s 200,000 miles of electric transmission lines. Such lines are ugly and fragment habitats and landscapes; burying them is an option, but an expensive one.
A better path would more clearly prioritize localized or distributed energy — solar panels over homes, businesses and parking lots, for example — and rapidly expand energy efficiency programs, like weatherizing. Large-scale renewables are necessary too, but an energy revolution should focus on “small” energy first. A recent Biden executive action toward building 1.5 million new energy efficient homes is a good start, but much more is needed in this same vein.