And furthermore,

Building power lines isn't always as simple as you'd think. In my mind, at least, I tend not to think about them; "they're everywhere, so whatever" is my basic train of thought.

But it does bare some consideration. Part of the reasoning behind pushing for a new, better smart grid is that we lose a fair amount of power - 3-6% of the electricity are figures I've seen, depending on a lot of factors like transmission voltage, direct versus alternating current, and distance electricity has to travel. A smart grid, in addition to being more efficient about allocating power, would also get us more efficient transmission.

But in addition to all the engineering, economic, environmental, and social questions we should be asking about more power lines, we need to ask the big one: are we just failing to embrace a new paradigm?

I hate using the word paradigm, probably due to too much exposure to Dilbert during formative periods of my life, but it works here. Since electricity became widespread, it's been expected that you build a power plant somewhere - either somewhere away from people, as with coal and nuclear plants, or just on the resource you want to use, as in the case of hydro and thermal power plants. But now that we're (slowly, slowly) shifting towards renewable energy, we really need to start asking ourselves whether it's truly better to stick with the paradigm that we build a big facility out in the world and transmit the power to where we need it - or whether we scale down the power plant and build those where-ever we need power.

To be entirely fair, we will probably always need some sort of a power grid, especially given the variability that goes along with renewable energy. Wind and solar resources in different geographic locations need to be able to cover for each other if they have to. But at the same time, there's a difference between base-load infrastructure and building lots of new power lines all over the place - and losing energy for our trouble.

Now, it's also fair to say that large solar and wind installations have the strength of economies of scale. Maintenance is easier. They're more efficient at generating power.

But here are more hard questions that someone needs to ask: what is efficiency, and how do we value it? The economic definition is that something is most efficient when it cannot be made better without some other aspect of it being made worse - which is nice, but when we talk about efficiency we really mean what it does for the amount of money it costs and whether there's a way to do more for cheaper. We're talking about money - people can cry "over-simplification!" (because it is), but when it comes right down to it, the main reason renewables are not considered competitive yet is because it costs more money to produce electricity.

But there's this handy word that economists use when they can't express something in terms of money - externality. There are positive externalities - good things - and negative externalities - bad things. In this case, coal plants that cause catastrophic climate change and harm the environment both before generating power (strip mining and mountain top removal) and after (fly ash and localized emissions) are "negative externalities". A solar panel, which does not do these things, has a "positive externality" component to it (although, in all fairness, most solar panels do have heavy metals in them, which are bad - they're working on it).

Over time, though, I get the feeling that we don't really label things as externalities because we want to categorize and tally them. We call these things externalities because we want to ignore them, for whatever reason. For me, personally, mitigating climate change and helping the environment is much more important than cost (as it is for 64,000 other people also enrolled in Pacific Power's extra-money-for-renewable-projects program).

What I'm getting at, in fits and starts, is that there's something off about the way we've been measuring these sorts of things. Pure, monetary efficiency is what got us into this problem to begin with - companies and people didn't take negative externalities aka climate change and environmental damage into consideration, just the bottom line. Lately, there's been a lot of talk about triple bottom lines - that is, a company must fulfill environmental and social concerns in addition to generating profit - and to be sure, tons of companies are doing great things.

But the discourse is still oriented towards money. If we consider what the fundamental idea behind a carbon tax or a cap and trade policy is, it's to apply negative externalities directly to economic costs. And while I support those things - because hey, human nature - I don't think that they can take us the distance.

We have to start considering things deeper. We have to start looking for externalities, and judging how much they're worth.

And we have to start thinking about the fact that the way we've done things might not be the best. I don't think it's going to be enough to just substitute a solar installation for a coal plant and call it done. We need shifts in technology, energy, transportation, and policy, yes - but to do that and see it through, we need a shift in priorities.

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