Sink or swim on renewables

The promise of renewable energy has been disrupted by history and the dynamics of supply and demand. The challenge for clean-energy entrepreneurs is to reverse the whipsaw pattern that began in the early 1970s. If renewables weathervane with gluts or shortages of fossil fuels, it will be deja vu.

The first U.S. Senate Committee hearing on renewables came on the heels of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. “Energy independence” was a bipartisan touchstone, embraced by President Richard Nixon. But solar panels on the White House went the way of the Carter administration (until May of this year, when President Obama had them installed again).

Today, energy independence is a Rorschach test: more domestic coal consumption for some, a carbon-free future for others.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced $14 million in smart-grid matching grants from the Clean Energy Fund to help the Snohomish County PUD, Avista Corp. and Puget Sound Energy weave together the state’s electrical grid with power generated from intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar energy.

“This is about storing solar energy to power our lights even on cloudy days,” Inslee said in a statement. “We’re using our Clean Energy Fund to position Washington state as a leader in energy storage and work with utilities to develop technologies and strategies that will move the market for renewables forward. Delivering operational value for our utilities is crucial if we’re going to successfully develop and deploy clean energy technologies.”

A flexible power grid and enhancement of renewables, especially with the fallout of climate change, are in the public interest. But storage is a technical hurdle that must be overcome, especially against the backdrop of the 2011 Solyndra scandal, which made solar energy a political lightning rod.

The $7.3 million to the Snohomish County PUD is a useful first step, improving energy “shifting” and enhancing distribution efficiency (if only policy language was as electric as battery-energy storage).

According to Inslee’s office, the cost of the three smart-grid demonstration projects is $35.3 million, with more than $21 million flowing from non-state funds.

“It’s our goal to transform the marketplace and make energy storage economically and operationally viable within the energy industry,” said Steve Klein, CEO of the Snohomish County PUD.

Klein nails it. Renewables need to pencil out and the marketplace transformed. That will take some doing. It also couldn’t be more critical.

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