The U.S. energy landscape is rapidly changing. As the cost of wind and solar power drops, allowing these energy sources to compete against coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, pressure is mounting to develop an electric grid that can sustain more renewables and deliver their power to more homes and businesses throughout the country.
In “Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy,” Wall Street Journal reporter Russell Gold chronicles Michael Skelly’s mission to improve the U.S. electric grid by building a network of transmission lines to connect solar and wind hotbeds to areas of the country where demand for energy is high. Experts in the field broadly agree that this grid integration is the key to unlocking the clean, affordable grid of the future. The book provides deep insights on the challenges of achieving such a system and the opportunities ahead.
On October 15th, EPIC hosted Russell Gold for a special conversation with Michael Greenstone about “Superpower,” the characters and lessons it details, and the future of the U.S. electricity grid.
Gold, who has been a reporter for the Wall Street Journal since 2000, started covering the energy industry in 2002 after moving to Texas. First, hydraulic fracturing became a main focus of much of his reporting. He wrote his first book, “The Boom,” chronicling the development and adoption of what was then a new technology. From there, Gold moved on to the next big thing in the industry: renewable energy.
“Renewables used to be really expensive and nowadays have rapidly become the lowest cost way to generate electricity in most parts of the United States,” Gold said. “In most counties, wind and solar have become the cheapest way to generate a kilowatt or megawatt of electricity, which is sort of amazing. Ten years ago, that would have been ridiculous to say.”
But for renewables to continue gaining traction as a main energy source in the United States, replacing fossil fuel-intensive energy such as coal, the country needs to change its transmission grid. That’s where Gold’s book, “Superpower,” comes in.
The main focus of the book, Michael Skelly, is someone who enjoys a good challenge and came up with the idea of building a 700-mile transmission line to bring wind power from the Great Plains to Tennessee—and then, he set out to do it. When writing the book, Gold wanted to convey how exciting, challenging, frustrating, depressing, and exhilarating, it could be to act on such a big idea.
“When I set out to write this book, there were several good books, then and now, about climate change. They all had words like ‘extinction,’ ‘unlivable,’ ‘doom and gloom,’ things are just going really badly. And I wanted to write about somebody who tried to make a difference. Whether he was successful or not, whether it was the best idea, he actually went out and tried to do something. I found that admirable. Not just talking about it. Not just tweeting about it. Lets’ go out and try and make something happen.”
In the end, Skelly’s transmission line did not get built. But he did win legal victories along the way that helped set important precedent. Most important, Skelly was successful at pushing the idea of what could be done.
His idea is central to the future of energy in the United States and the world: the need to expand transmission lines. Gold noted that even if the entire Oklahoma panhandle was covered in wind farms, if its power can’t be moved what is the point?
With transmission lines like the one Skelly proposed, the United States could easily get the majority of its renewable energy without raising prices, Gold noted. But he wonders, do the American people want to? And more importantly, is it possible?
The nation—and world—must now wrestle with developing the technology, finding the financing, and changing the political and regulatory structures surrounding transmission lines. Gold feels this is one vital piece of the puzzle to confronting climate change.
“Let’s acknowledge that whether or not I eat an impossible burger or a hamburger, it’s not going to by itself change climate. The challenge ahead is one of infrastructure, it’s one of big changes, and big investments. And when somebody comes along with a big idea, let’s embrace that,” Gold said.
But one idea isn’t the full answer, he noted.
“We need to be doing and deploying lots of ideas to tackle [climate change]. There is no one good idea. We need to be trying a lot of things and we need to not be afraid of them. And we need to make sure that if there is a good idea, it gets a good hearing.”