Putting You Faith in Renewable Energy

by Robin Lafayette

When's the last time you stopped and thought about where your electricity comes from? I'm willing to bet it's been a long time for most of you, and that's okay. It's a wonderful thing, being able to flip a light switch and know that, at least most of the time, it's going to work. Access to reliable electric service, in this day and age, is such a basic human necessity that we largely take for granted. You pay your utility bill every month, and barring a major outage event, it's just always there. However, there is an amazing amount of work that goes into getting that power to you, and ensuring that it's always available.

It has been said that the electric grid is perhaps the most complex engineered system in the entire world, and it takes the efforts of thousands upon thousands of people all over the world to run it. That's where I come in. For the past 8 years, I've worked for an organization called ISO New England (the ISO stands for Independent System Operator). This independent, not-for-profit company functions as the "air traffic controller" of the entire New England electric system. We manage real-time operation of the entire New England electric system, working with the local utility companies to maintain reliable electric service to millions of customers in the region, day in and day out. We coordinate long-term system planning efforts to ensure that there is an adequate amount of power generation (and transmission lines to deliver it) well into the future. And finally, we oversee and maintain the wholesale markets that ultimately determine the price of your electricity. Many such organizations exist throughout the country - New York State even has its own ISO! A little bit of your electric bill every month goes towards your ISO's operating budget, and ensures that it can complete its goal of ensuring that your electricity generated and delivered reliably, efficiently, and hopefully, at the cheapest price possible. The ISO owns no generation plants or transmission infrastructure, and has no financial stake in the power industry.

For decades, the backbone of the power generation fleet in the United States has been made up of large turbine plants that burned coal or oil in order to generate electricity. They were reliable, could be built pretty much anywhere, and perhaps most importantly, they were relatively cheap. Not much thought was given until maybe the past 20 or 30 years about the environmental effects of obtaining and burning these fuels. However, with average global temperatures rising and seasonal weather shifts becoming much more extreme, it's becoming difficult to deny that our dependence on fossil fuels hasn't had a detrimental effect on our planet. As a result, there has recently been an explosion of interest in the development of alternative, sustainable forms of power generation, most notably harnessing the power of the wind and sun.

The idea of harnessing these clean sources of energy is not new. For much of the late 20th and into the early 21st century, the development of renewable electric power generation was held back due to the fact that, when compared to traditional fossil fuel-fired generation, it was much more expensive to develop on a large scale. However, with advancements in technology and production techniques and support from both state and the federal government, wind and solar facilities can compete economically with non-renewable resources. Think about it: once they're built, the fuel that drives them is free, sustainable, and has a drastically reduced environmental impact when operating as compared to older power generation. It seems like kind of a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, the move towards renewable electricity comes with its own issues that have little to do with their environmental impact. The biggest problem, of course, is that the sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow. Solar panels and wind turbines cannot be counted on in the absence of their respective fuel sources. Fossil fuel generation, on the other hand, can run day and night, as needed. A lot of research and development has been progressing in the development of forms of energy storage, such as large-scale battery installations, to help augment the output of wind and solar facilities, but it is lagging behind the boom of interest in wind and solar and only beginning to catch up. The volatility of renewable generation output also creates operational issues throughout the day. When the sun goes down at night, areas of the system that have large amounts of solar generation need to have backup resources available to compensate for the quick, massive swing in demand that occurs when solar panels stop generating electricity.

The second big problem is more geographical in nature. While small solar and wind installations can be installed virtually anywhere, even on top of your house or in your backyard, the transmission and distribution infrastructure in this country has been built out to deliver power generated from large, centralized facilities. When a large fuel-burning plant retires, it's not a given that it can be immediately replaced with large-scale solar or wind in the same location. While there is an immense amount of untapped wind generation potential in this country, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains, the transmission system has not been developed to deliver power from these more remote regions to the population centers of the country. Efforts are underway to remedy this and allow for the interconnection of more utility-scale renewable resources, but the process can be quite slow and bureaucratic.

At this point, some of you might be asking yourselves, why bother? After building up renewable electricity, Robin just got up here and spent a good 5 minutes bashing it. We could just continue to get our power the same way we always have. The problem with that kind of attitude is the reality of our dependence on fossil fuels for our energy needs. Fossil fuels are not a sustainable resource - at the rate we're consuming them, though probably not in the near future, they will run out. Obtaining them and consuming them has also inarguably had a detrimental effect on the health of our planet and ecosystem, contributing to global warming, increased tectonic activity, and destruction of the environment. The shift to sustainable electricity is not going to come without its pains and difficulties, but I believe that it is ultimately necessary to preserve the future of our planet.

As good Christians, and as citizens of the world, I don't believe that we can sit idly by and continue to act as if our actions up to this point in time haven't done some damage to the Earth. God gave us this wonderful gift, this planet we live on, and he gave it to us to use as we ultimately see fit. As is written in Genesis 2:15, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and to keep it." To me, the key word here is "keep" - as good Christians, we cannot in good conscience keep tilling and turning over the garden until there is nothing left. We need to keep the garden in good shape for future generations! While we can put faith in the thought that God will ultimately provide for us, we also need to put faith in one another and push ourselves to do what we can to preserve God's gift for ourselves and for others. In the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, it is written that "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor…". We should use the gift of this planet's resources, but not in an unsustainable manner, and certainly not without considering how we can share them with others who may not have that same privilege. Another point that I haven't really touched on yet is the role of renewable energy in bringing electricity to those who don't already have it. Small installations of solar and wind generation can be set up virtually anywhere, even in areas without distribution and transmission infrastructure to support it. Bringing renewable power to the remote corners of the world brings us all closer together and can drastically improve the lives of those who previously lived in the dark. Through mission work such as the Maji Solar Project, we can preserve our planet and perform the outreach and mission work that are core to our values as Christians.

When I agreed to come speak to you today, one of my chief goals was to leave you with some simple steps that any and all of you can take to move towards a more sustainable energy future. Just because you don't work in the power Industry like me doesn't mean that you can't make a big difference in your own way. My first suggestion is probably the most straightforward: try to reduce your electricity usage. The most sustainable resource is one that doesn't even need to be consumed! Turn off lights when you're not in the room, unplug appliances when you're not using them. You can even take the step of installing more efficient home appliances that consume less power. Ultra-efficient LED light bulbs are cheaper than ever, and between their long lifespans and reduced energy usage, they'll pay for themselves in no time (and then some!). There are also energy auditing services available for both homes and businesses; a certified expert can come to your house or office, assess your energy needs, and provide suggestions to help you reduce your overall energy usage. In a lot of cases, the fees associated with this service can be reduced or even waived through programs set up by the New York State government or your local utility company. And on top of that, they may also be able to offer you savings and rebates on the costs associated with any steps you choose to take to reduce your energy usage.

My second suggestion is to consider installing a solar panel array at your home or business. Generating your own sustainable electricity has a lot of benefits beyond reducing your environmental footprint. While the up-front costs of putting up a solar array are not trivial, in the long run, it can prove to be a wise investment. Overall, it can substantially reduce and even sometimes eliminate your need to pay your utility company for electricity service. It also has the added benefit of increasing the overall value of your property. There are many state-supported tax incentives and programs that you can explore to see if installing solar is a good move for you.

My last suggestion probably involves the least work on your part: call up your local utility company and tell them that you would like to switch to a renewable energy product. While this descriptor is a little misleading - you can never guarantee that every kilowatt-hour of electricity that reaches your home or business is sustainable, what it does is force your utility company to purchase more of the power it delivers to its customers from renewable resources. Your utility company only serves to deliver energy to you - where that energy comes from, and how it's produced, is entirely up to you.

Many experts in the electric power industry agree: the train has left the station and is moving towards a sustainable energy future. Renewable energy is cleaner, cheaper, and can easily bring light and power to areas that never had it before! While myself and others in the industry are doing everything we can to make this future a reality, we need your help to make sure we get there. I hope I've given you some food for thought on actions you can take to support this movement - even the smallest actions can make a huge difference. I'd be happy to continue talking to any of you after the service, and I'll be leaving some helpful tips and web resources that my mom will post somewhere for you to peruse on your own time. Consider it mission work for the planet - by making a few small changes in your own lives, you can help both the planet and your fellow man, ensuring that God's creation is here for us to enjoy for generations to come.