Toward a Greener Wash

The electricity industry has discovered a new way to coat itself with greenwash: suddenly every proposal to build a new transmission line is motivated by a newfound desire to bring renewable energy to the people. Because they care, these utility companies.

This is how industrial power co-opts change. When the big guys notice that, despite their best and most expensive efforts to deny an idea, it seems to be gaining traction, they announce that they have seen the light and now support it. But in doing this they corrupt the language describing it and thus the idea itself.

Unease is growing in the country about the increasing cost and unreliability of electricity, evidence that deregulating the utilities was a really bad idea — as if in the wake of Enron we needed any more evidence. But wait: suddenly these guys are not the bandits who invented wheeling — the practice of coursing enormous quantities of electricity around the country, to wherever they can charge the most for it, on a grid that was never designed to handle such loads. Now they’re just the guys struggling to build a new grid to bring us wind energy, which apparently is only found in Texas, and solar energy, which the sun delivers only to deserts.

Not only that, but this new grid is going to be a “smart” grid, a name that tells you what the existing grid is. But listen closely to these songs of praise for the new smartness and you will hear that the bells and whistles, the meters and feedback mechanisms and costing information, affect only distribution. That’s how the current gets from your local substation to you. Transmission is what the huge towers, marching over mountain ranges, national parks, fields and yards, do — and they will be just as dumb in the new era as they are now. There will just be more of them.

There is nothing renewable or sustainable, nothing green, about enormous steel wind turbines with 100-foot blades, enormous steel towers hanging thick cables, sprawling fields of solar panels covering fragile desert lands (with attendant cities of tenders). This is just industry doing its thing, destroying our land, air and water for their profit.

This won’t change until we overturn the entire, industrial model of electricity. Instead of trying to figure out how to make all of our power in one place and use it in another, we have to start now to make our power where we are. Every home and business built from tomorrow on should be off the grid. (As someone said, after a hundred years of this technology the best you can do is strings on sticks? Forget fixing the grid. Abandon it.) If we have wind where we are, we use it, if sunshine, use it, if water, use it. Tides? Geothermal? Fine, every place, every home and business, has its own energy resources. We have the technology and the know-how to use them. Doing so would be sustainable, which means that we could keep on doing it.

But first we have to scrub off the greenwash, get it out of our eyes so we can see the consequences of pretending that the electricity that runs our computers and our hot tubs is cheap, or that the people who want to destroy more of our world to make more money from us believe in a greener world.

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