Keene has long been a leader in responding to the threats of climate change. Now, to reduce greenhouse gasses, the City Council has set a goal that, by 2050, all energy used in Keene come from solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal or hydropower sources. This excludes all fossil fuels.
Meeting this goal is feasible. The renewable energy resources are available, the technology is proven, and the economics are aligning. The advantages are huge. We eliminate marine oil-spill disasters, natural gas explosions that take out neighborhoods and choking vehicle exhaust. In return we get new jobs, improved public health, cleaner environment, energy independence, and lower energy costs.
New Hampshire has tremendous renewable energy potential. If we put solar panels on a little more than 1 percent of Cheshire County, we could generate all the energy the county would need. Wind power in the Gulf of Maine could easily generate the electricity for all of New England.
One challenge is that wind and solar can’t be turned on when we want electricity. We will need to store it. The daily storage challenge can be met with existing batteries, which are already affordable. Utilities across the country are installing battery storage systems larger than what Keene would need. Seasonal storage can be met by other technologies (e.g. hydrogen or compressed air), but these are not yet economical. An immediate solution is to simply purchase renewable energy from other parts of the continent. For those weeks of cloudy weather or windless days, we can import wind power from Iowa, hydropower from Quebec or solar energy from Georgia.
Solar prices have dropped by 60 percent and wind prices by 50 percent over the past decade. Wind and solar are now the cheapest ways to make electricity. It is even cheaper to build new wind farms than to operate an old coal plant. Prices will decline further with economies of scale.
A recent spin-off from Google, Dandelion Energy, is offering geothermal energy. It will install a geothermal system to heat and cool a home for a 20-year contract that’s 50-70 percent lower than your existing energy costs. Geothermal is the most energy-efficient way to heat buildings.
Another challenge is the local electricity grid. If we replace gasoline cars with electric cars and oil heat with geothermal or electric heat, we will use more electricity. Where the wires of the grid are not large enough to carry that power, we must make expensive upgrades. One alternative is to generate electricity at our homes. A normal rooftop array generates all the electricity a family needs. Adding batteries in homes means we don’t need to build a large battery station or upgrade power lines. Liberty Utilities is already installing batteries in homes here in New Hampshire.
To convert to renewable energy, we must install more solar panels, wind farms, geothermal and power lines. Large new infrastructure is unpopular, but the alternative is oil and gas development off the Atlantic coast and more climate-related disasters. Some people complain about how much land renewables take. But the fossil-fuel sector presently uses 2.8 percent of the United States. We can generate all the renewable energy we need on less land.
Of course, energy savings should come first. Fortunately, saving energy is becoming big business. Keene State just hired Siemens Corp. for a multi-year contract at a price of zero dollars. Siemens will pay for and install energy-saving devices at the college in exchange for a share of the savings. Homeowners in Keene can reduce their energy demand by weatherizing and upgrading appliances. I installed a heat pump hot water heater at my house and saved $400 in electricity last year. We need to get smarter about saving energy while making our buildings more comfortable places to live and work.
Achieving the city’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy does not depend on new technology or radical changes in the economics. We will meet our goal if people of Keene become inspired and demand a future with clean, renewable energy.