The U.S. stands at an energy crossroads. With or without new direction from policymakers, huge sums will be invested in the electricity system as aging infrastructure is replaced and new infrastructure is built to meet our country’s growing energy needs. In the 11 states that comprise the Western Interconnect, that amounts to more than $200 billion over the next two decades.

We know that this money will be spent. The remaining question is: how do we spend it? We can maintain a business-as-usual approach or intentionally invest those dollars in a new clean energy economy. Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) highlighted what’s at stake: “A robust electric transmission grid will help to provide consumers with access to affordable, reliable and diverse sources of electricity.  To that end, the coming decades are likely to see substantial investment in the West in new transmission infrastructure.  Making those investment decisions wisely will benefit electric consumers.”

Decisions made today will have economic and environmental consequences for decades to come, so we’d better choose wisely. A new report titled Western Grid 2050: Contrasting Futures, Contrasting Fortunes is intended to inform that choice by taking a close look at the composition and implications of those two very different investment paths from 2010 through 2050.

The Business-As-Usual cases assume our continued dependence on legacy resources, infrastructure and grid operation in order to meet Western electricity needs. They will add limited amounts of energy efficiency and renewable power to utility portfolios to meet existing requirements, but the West would continue to get the majority of its power from coal and gas. Fuel price and supply risk are likely to increase. The negative environmental and public health impacts of polluting resources continue to grow. The grid will remain as vulnerable as it is today. And western states will miss a tremendous opportunity to lead the new global energy economy.

The contrasting Clean Energy Vision cases assume that efficiency, demand response, and distributed renewable generation are pursued aggressively; that we transition away from coal; and that large-scale renewable power plants fill the gap. The information technologies we rely on to communicate in our day-to-day lives can also operate a smarter, more diverse and decentralized grid. And the 38 individual Balancing Areas of the West would cooperate to reliably and efficiently meet energy needs in this new sustainable energy landscape. As a result, local employment opportunities increase as more energy dollars are invested in job-creating infrastructure and operations than in fuel supply. Fuel price and security liabilities, harmful emissions, and water use all decrease as states gradually transition away from coal. Electrification of our transportation system delivers parallel benefits of reduced dependence on imported oil. Even under careful consideration of the old sticking points of costs and land impacts, the future looks brighter under the clean energy cases.

There’s no question which is the preferred path. Happily, the report finds that a clean energy-powered West is absolutely achievable.  Report author and former Nevada energy commissioner Carl Linvill of the Aspen Environmental Group said, “Advances in information, communications and clean energy technologies have opened the opportunity to overcome the barriers of 20th century grid technology and transition to a 21st century clean energy economy in the West.”

“The West is home to world-class renewable energy potential on a large scale. By harnessing that potential -- and balancing it with the use of existing tools including energy efficiency, demand side management and distributed generation -- we will create jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and chart a bipartisan way forward to improve America’s energy security,” said NRDC President Frances Beinecke.

It’s not technology or cost or resource adequacy that is standing between the West and a clean energy future. It’s inertia. Without intentional policymaking and planning, the Western electricity grid of 2030 or 2050 will instead look very much like the grid of the last century. The key is sustained investment in clean energy resources -- and sustained transition away from fossil fuels.

To that end, more than 25 organizations representing local and regional energy industry, conservation, tribal and public health interests have joined together as the Western Clean Energy Advocates to change the way energy is produced, used and distributed in the West. The coalition includes a smorgasbord of energy heavy hitters: former utility regulators, leading conservation voices, and industry groups from across the full spectrum of clean energy market opportunities. Vote Solar is proud to be included among them.

As part of this morning’s launch, former Colorado governor Bill Ritter amplified the advocacy group’s call to action. “In my time as governor, Colorado saw tremendous benefit from our commitment to clean energy,” said Ritter. “I call on Western state policymakers to similarly prioritize clean energy and to reach across state lines to help build a stronger energy future for the West. We can’t afford to wait for Washington, nor should we. The West is the land of frontiers, of pioneers and innovation. Let’s make good on that heritage. Let's break with business-as-usual and build a more prosperous, safe, and sustainable energy future.”

And it's increasingly apparent that leadership must come from the states. The good news is that the states already have a proud tradition of driving progress on clean power in this country. Pioneering efficiency programs in places like California and Arizona are already delivering energy savings. Nearly every state from Washington to Montana and down to New Mexico has an RPS to encourage renewable development. And FERC's recent Order No. 1000 has gone further than ever in empowering states to make the regional transmission planning and investment decisions needed to make an orderly transition to clean power.

Looking at the two options before us, the choice is clear. There are no new opportunities to be found in the business-as-usual approach. The jobs, industries and technologies of the future will be forged along the clean energy trajectory. I know where I’d put my $200 billion.


Rosalind Jackson is director of communications and development at the Vote Solar Initiative. She has written about how to revitalize PACE and how to use solar to curb deforestation in Madagascar.