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Offshore wind turbines will line the Atlantic coast; vast solar arrays will cover swaths of the southwestern desert; transmission towers will cradle high-voltage direct current lines and take electricity from the windy Great Plains to the populated coasts. That is the renewable future for the U.S. that the Obama administration seems to envision and, certainly, what Jon Wellinghoff forecasts. And as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Wellinghoff has a better than even chance of making his vision a reality.
Already, FERC is rewriting the rules for new transmission lines, potentially making it easier to permit new electricity-carrying capacity—and, as a result, unleashing the development of more renewable resources. The commission released a new rule on June 17 that would require that mandates for renewable energy—enacted in 36 states nationwide—be taken into account when determining where and when new transmission lines get installed.
Wellinghoff's goal is to enable a near total transformation of the electricity sector, allowing for renewable resources, such as the sun, wind and flow of rivers, to meet a greater proportion of U.S. electricity demand. The benefits, according to Wellinghoff, range from "green" jobs to cutting by 80 percent emissions of the greenhouse gases causing climate change by 2050. And, ultimately, electricity harvested from the wind may be the cheapest form of electricity generation, saving money for consumers.
Renewables offer just 10 percent of total U.S. electricity generation at present, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a proportion that drops to just 4 percent when the dams built from the 1930s to the 1970s are not counted. And even FERC cannot get its landlord—the federal government's General Services Administration—to invest in energy efficiency.
ScientificAmerican.com spoke to Wellinghoff about how and why the federal government—and his agency—are pushing for this energy revolution.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How do you see the mix of electricity generating resources in our energy portfolio over the next 30 to 40 years?
The mix is changing substantially. If you look at, you know, 30, 40, 50 years ago, we had a system where you had primarily local utilities that were serving local loads with local generation. So, it was very balkanized and it was very specific to certain areas that that particular utility would only serve that area with their own generation and to the extent that they may have some excess, yes, they have a little line that was going to the neighboring utility, and maybe they would share. But right now we are starting to build up a system that's moving away from that, primarily because we are trying to lower our carbon footprint in this country and lower it for the world. We are trying to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and we are trying to do what we can to ultimately ensure that we have clean green energy in this country. To do that we have to go to the sources, and those sources are mostly located in remote locations far away from loads, [so the power] ultimately has to be transmitted to those loads on long [transmission] lines. So, if you are looking at the Midwest where there is a substantial amount of wind—all the way from the Dakotas down to Texas—or if you are looking at the solar availability in this country in the Southwest, in Arizona or Nevada, or even the offshore wind in the Atlantic, you have to build lines from those sources to the loads, and you have to have a much more robust system that can support that. It's not simply the local utility with the local generator to serve the local load, it is now a nationwide grid. To do that we have to look at a much different system that is operated in a much more sophisticated way that hands off from region to region in a very efficient manner, so that these new green resources can be delivered where they need to be delivered.