In order to encourage exponential growth of renewable energy in the coming years, the United States must significantly invest in the infrastructure of our energy grids. Renewable energy faces two main problems: the inherent unreliability of natural forces and the cheap competition of fossil fuels. However, increasing interconnection between regional energy grids addresses these two central problems of reliability and cost-effectiveness by creating a market for the transfer of energy between states. Connecting our energy grids will allow the U.S. to boost the security of the green energy supply and integrate more renewable energy into the market. During extreme weather conditions, states need to be able to rely on their neighbors to import the electricity they need. Yet without proper infrastructure, it is impossible to buy and sell electricity across borders. Interconnection of our regional energy grids is essential for the security of green energy supply and thus for the growth of green energy.

The main challenge of renewable energy is its inherent unreliability, but a green energy market would bypass the requisite of sustainability: vast energy storage. Solar energy in California, for example, falls far below the necessary energy demands in the winter months. Yet in the summer months, California often has to discard their excess solar power. The state’s fleet of solar farms frequently generates more electricity than Californians use during the middle of the day, and without sufficient energy storage infrastructure, this excess electricity is simply thrown away. Expensive storage methods such as batteries or hydroelectric energy storage are technologically possible, but extremely expensive and thus carry little political traction in California. A cheaper alternative is the development of a more interconnected regional power grid, allowing neighboring states to buy and sell energy as necessary. So in summer months when California has too much solar energy, the state can sell excess electricity instead of curtailing it. Meanwhile in the winter when there isn’t enough solar energy production, the state can import other types of green energy such as wind energy from Wyoming or New Mexico. In this way, a proposed energy market could solve our energy storage problem by bypassing the problem of storage almost entirely. Instead of requiring each green energy producer to invest in expensive energy storage on top of green energy costs, states can just buy and sell as needed.

A larger, more interconnected power grid would mean each state doesn’t have to worry about diversifying their individual energy portfolio for energy stability, but can still benefit from green energy diversity in the region at large when necessary. In the European Union, for example, Denmark already produces excess wind energy, but instead of throwing it away, they sell it to their neighbors like Norway. Norway then stores that energy and can sell the electricity to other neighbors when demand is high. Interconnection like this creates more diverse sources of energy, where different regions can benefit from their respective advantages in climate and geographical features. In this energy market, Denmark doesn’t have to plan for a day when the wind doesn’t blow by turning to fossil fuels or building other types of green infrastructure. Instead, Denmark can focus on what is most efficient for them. And, Norway doesn’t have to heavily invest in energy production when it is more cost-effective for them to invest in energy storage and import energy from Denmark. Each state can focus on their own geographic or climate niche and maximize their individual efficiency. In doing so, exporters of green energy can make a profit, and importers can import cheaper green energy. Take a step back, and the European continent as a whole system will see a decrease in green energy prices and an increase in the overall usage of green energy.

While increased interconnection of regional power grids has the potential to make green energy more competitive, the fossil fuel industry could also capitalize and benefit from cheaper energy exchange. However, the energy market in the U.S., and the rest of the world, is undeniably trending towards green energy, and opening up the market will only steepen that trend over time. An energy market will always favor the cheapest and best option, and even though coal might still be competitive now, an open energy market will work to increase the rate so that the market phases out fossil fuels eventually. Instead of outlawing coal or fossil fuels, we can realistically build infrastructure in our power grids to incentivize green energy through the market.

Discussion of renewable energy faces many technological and economic hurdles, but we can begin to address them right now by investing in infrastructure. Renewable energy’s inherent unreliability can effectively be addressed with the interconnection of power grids — we don’t need to wait for a miracle battery. A bigger, more liquid and transparent market would enable easier integration of renewables such as wind and solar, and help meet the country’s renewable energy and climate goals at the least cost. It would allow California solar energy to be exported rather than discarded, and enable access to a greater variety of excellent resources, such as wind energy in Wyoming. We need to invest in interconnection now to incentivize renewable energy in the future. 

Reid Diamond can be reached at reiddiam@umich.edu.

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