Recognizing that reality, state officials in recent years have gone back to encouraging the use of small-scale energy systems. To manage the supply and demand of electricity, for example, Hawaii offers up to $4,250 to homeowners on Oahu, home to about 70 percent of the state’s population and Honolulu, to install home batteries with their solar systems, defraying as much as third of the cost of doing so. Utilities can tap those batteries for power between 6 and 8:30 p.m., when energy demand typically peaks.
“It’s a good example of a good policy pivot with utilities and regulators saying, ‘We need to change how we approach this,’” said Bryan White, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm.
‘Oil is a finite resource.’
Unlike most of the country, Hawaii burns a lot of oil to generate electricity — a common approach on islands because the fuel is easier and cheaper to ship than natural gas.
“We’re unique in that we’re dependent on oil for more power generation than the rest of the U.S. mainland combined,” Marco Mangelsdorf, a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who specializes in the politics of energy and has lived in Hawaii for much of his life.
Power plants fueled by oil supplied nearly two-thirds of Hawaii’s electricity last year, down from nearly three-quarters a decade earlier, according to the Energy Information Administration, a federal agency. Rooftop solar, by comparison, supplied about 14 percent, up from 6 percent in 2014, the earliest year for which the agency has that data.
The state had imported about 80 percent of its oil from Russia, Libya and Argentina, which offer a grade that Hawaii’s refinery can process. The remaining 20 percent came from Alaska.
LONDON — When Jakob Bitner was 7, he left Russia for Germany with his parents and sister. Twenty-eight years later, he is set on solving a vexing green-energy problem that could help Germany end its dependence on imported energy from Russia, or anywhere.
The problem: how to make wind and solar energy available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing.
The company that Mr. Bitner co-founded in Munich in 2016, VoltStorage, found some success selling storage battery packs for solar power to homeowners in Europe. Now the company is developing much larger batteries — each about the size of a shipping container — based on a chemical process that can store and discharge electricity over days, not just hours like today’s most popular battery technology.
These ambitions to overcome the unreliable nature of renewable energy fit perfectly with Europe’s targets to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. But Mr. Bitner’s company is facing a frustrating reality that threatens to undercut Europe’s plans and poses a wider challenge in the global fight against climate change: a lack of money to finish the job.
plenty of capital available globally for the multitrillion-dollar task of funding this transition to greener energy.
Europe’s Shift Away From Fossil Fuels
The European Union has begun a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate the efforts.
The war in Ukraine has made Europe’s energy transition even more urgent. The European Union has said it will cut imported Russian natural gas by two-thirds this year and completely by the end of the decade. While some of that supply will be made up by imports from other countries, such as the United States and Qatar, expanding domestic renewable energy capacity is a critical pillar to this plan.
But attracting investors to projects trying to move beyond mature technologies like solar and wind power is tough. Venture capitalists, once cheerleaders of green energy, are more infatuated with cryptocurrencies and start-ups that deliver groceries and beer within minutes. Many investors are put off by capital-intensive investments. And governments have further muddied the water with inconsistent policies that undermine their bold pledges to reduce carbon emissions.
Venture capitalists’ other interests
Tony Fadell, who spent most of his career trying to turn emerging technologies into mainstream products as an executive at Apple and founder of Nest, said that even as the world faced the risks of climate change, money was flooding into less urgent developments in cryptocurrency, the so-called metaverse and the digital art collections sold as NFTs. Last year, venture capitalists invested $11.9 billion in renewable energy globally, compared with $30.1 billion in cryptocurrency and blockchain, according to PitchBook.
Of the $106 billion invested by venture capitalists in European start-ups last year, just 4 percent went into energy investments, according to PitchBook.
“We need to get real,” said Mr. Fadell, who now lives in Paris and has proposed ideas on energy policy to the French government. “Too many people are investing in the things that are not going to fix our existential problems. They are just investing in fast money.”
It has not helped that the industry has been burned before by a green tech boom. About 15 years ago, environmentally conscious start-ups were seen as the next big thing in Silicon Valley. One of the premier venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, made former Vice President Al Gore a partner and pledged that clean energy would eventually make up at least a third of its total investments.Instead, Kleiner became a cautionary tale about the risks of investing in energy-related companies as the firm missed out on early backing of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter.
There is evidence that these old fears are receding. Two years ago 360 Capital, a venture capital firm based in Paris and Milan dealing in early-stage investment, introduced a dedicated fund investing in clean energy and sustainability companies. The firm is now planning to open up the fund to more investors, expanding it to €150 million from a €30 million fund.
There are a growing number of dedicated funds for energy investments. But even then there is a tendency for the companies in them to be software developers, deemed less risky than builders of larger-scale energy projects. Four of the seven companies backed by 360 Capital’s new fund are artificial intelligence companies and software providers.
Still, the situation has changed completely since the company’s first major green-energy investment in 2008, Fausto Boni, the firm’s founder, said. “We see potentially lots of money coming into the sector, and so many of the issues we had 15 years ago are on their way to being overcome,” he said. But the availability of bigger investments needed to help companies expand in Europe still lags behind, he added.
The funding gap
Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, which is backed by Bill Gates, is trying to fill the gap. It was formed in late 2021 to help move promising technology from development to commercial use. In Europe, it is a $1 billion initiative with the European Commission and European Investment Bank to support four types of technologies — long-duration energy storage, clean hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels and direct air capture of carbon dioxide — that it believes need to scale quickly.
In Europe, there are “significant difficulties with the scaling-up phase,” said Ann Mettler, the vice president for Europe at Breakthrough Energy and a former director general at the European Commission. There is money for start-ups, but when companies become reasonably successful and a bit larger, they are often acquired by American or Chinese companies, she said. This leaves fewer independent companies in Europe focused on the energy problems they set out to solve.
Companies that build complex — and often expensive — hardware, like Mr. Bitner’s batteries for long-duration energy storage, have an especially hard time finding investors willing to stomach the risks. After a few investment rounds, the companies are too big for early-stage investors but too small to appeal to institutional investors looking for safer places to park large amounts of cash.
“If you look at typical climate technologies, such as wind and solar and even the lithium-ion batteries, they took well over four decades to go from the early R&D to the large-scale commercialization and cost competitiveness,” Ms. Mettler said, referring to research and development. “Four decades — which obviously we don’t have.”
What investors want
There are some signs of improvement, including more funds focused on clean energy or sustainability and more companies securing larger investment rounds. But there is a sense of frustration as investors, companies and European governments agree that innovation and adoption of new technology need to happen much more quickly to reduce carbon emissions sharply by 2030.
“You won’t find a place in the world that is more attuned to what is needed than Europe,” Ms. Mettler said. “It’s not for lack of ambition or vision — it’s difficult.”
But investors say government policy can help them more. Despite climate pledges, the regulations and laws in place haven’t created strong enough incentives for investments in new technologies.
Industries like steel and concrete have to be forced to adopt greener methods of production, Mr. Boni, the 360 Capital founder, said.
For energy storage, hydrogen, nuclear power and other large-scale projects, the government should expedite permitting, cut taxes and provide matching funds, said Mr. Fadell, who has put his personal fortune into Future Shape, which backs start-ups addressing societal challenges.
“There are few investors willing to go all in to put up $200 million or $300 million,” Mr. Fadell said. “We need to know the government is on our side.”
At the Siemens Gamesa factory in Aalborg, Denmark, where the next generation of offshore wind turbines is being built, workers are on their hands and knees inside a shallow, canoe-shaped pod that stretches the length of a football field. It is a mold used to produce one half of a single propeller blade. Guided by laser markings, the crew is lining the sides with panels of balsa wood.
The gargantuan blades offer a glimpse of the energy future that Europe is racing toward with sudden urgency. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia — the European Union’s largest supplier of natural gas and oil — has spurred governments to accelerate plans to reduce their dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels. Armed conflict has prompted policymaking pledges that the more distant threat of an uninhabitable planet has not.
Smoothly managing Europe’s energy switch was always going to be difficult. Now, as economies stagger back from the second year of the pandemic, Russia’s attack on Ukraine grinds on and energy prices soar, the painful trade-offs have crystallized like never before.
Moving investments away from oil, gas and coal to sustainable sources like wind and solar, limiting and taxing carbon emissions, and building a new energy infrastructure to transmit electricity are crucial to weaning Europe off fossil fuels. But they are all likely to raise costs during the transition, an extremely difficult pill for the public and politicians to swallow.
unwinding efforts to shut coal mines and stop drilling new oil and gas wells to replace Russian fuel and bring prices down.
proposed a carbon tax on imports from carbon-producing sectors like steel and cement.
And it has led the way in generating wind power, especially from ocean-based turbines. Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, for example, has been instrumental in planting rows of colossal whirligigs at sea that can generate enough green energy to light up cities.
Europe, too, is on the verge of investing billions in hydrogen, potentially the multipurpose clean fuel of the future, which might be generated by wind turbines.
halted approval of Nord Stream 2, an $11 billion gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that directly links Russia to northeastern Germany.
As Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said when she announced a plan on March 8 to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels: “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.” The proposal calls for member nations to reduce Russian natural gas imports by two-thirds by next winter and to end them altogether by 2027 — a very tall order.
This week, European Union leaders are again meeting to discuss the next phase of proposals, but deep divisions remain over how to manage the current price increases amid anxieties that Europe could face a double whammy of inflation and recession.
On Monday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned that intense focus on quickly replacing Russian oil could mean that major economies “neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use.”
price of palladium, used in automotive exhaust systems and mobile phones, has been soaring amid fears that Russia, the world’s largest exporter of the metal, could be cut off from global markets. The price of nickel, another key Russian export, has also been rising.
Financial turmoil. Global banks are bracing for the effects of sanctions intended to restrict Russia’s access to foreign capital and limit its ability to process payments in dollars, euros and other currencies crucial for trade. Banks are also on alert for retaliatory cyberattacks by Russia.
Mr. Rasmussen and other executives added that identifying suitable areas for wind turbines and obtaining permits required for construction take “far too long.” Challenges are based on worries that the vast arrays of turbines will interfere with fishing, obstruct naval exercises and blight views from summer houses.
To Kadri Simson, Europe’s commissioner for energy, renewable energy projects should be treated as an “overriding public interest,” and Europe should consider changing laws to facilitate them.
“We cannot talk about a renewables revolution if getting a permit for a wind farm takes seven years,” Ms. Simson said.
Still, environmental regulations and other rules relating to large infrastructure installations are usually the province of countries rather than European Union officials in Brussels.
And steadfast opposition from communities and industries invested in fossil fuels make it hard for political leaders to fast-track energy transition policies.
In Upper Silesia, Poland’s coal basin, bright yellow buses display signs that boast they run on 100 percent electric, courtesy of a grant from the European Union. But along the road, large billboards mounted before the invasion of Ukraine by state-owned utilities — erroneously — blame Brussels for 60 percent of the rise in energy prices.
Down in the Wujek coal mine, veterans worry if their jobs will last long enough for them to log the 25 years needed to retire with a lifelong pension. Closing mines not only threatens to devastate the economy, several miners said, but also a way of life built on generations of coal mining.
“Pushing through the climate policy forcefully may lead to a drastic decrease in the standard of living here,” said Mr. Kolorz at Solidarity’s headquarters in Katowice. “And when people do not have something to put on the plate, they can turn to extreme populism.”
Climate pressures are pushing at least some governments to consider steps they might not have before.
German officials have determined that it is too costly to keep the country’s last three remaining nuclear power generators online past the end of the year. But the quest for energy with lower emissions is leading to a revival of nuclear energy elsewhere.
Britain and France say they plan to invest in smaller nuclear reactors that can be produced in larger numbers to bring down costs.
Britain might even build a series of small nuclear fusion reactors, a promising but still unproven technology. Ian Chapman, chief executive of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, said every route to clean energy must be tried if there is to be any hope of reaching net zero emissions in three decades, the deadline for avoiding catastrophic climate change. “We’ve got to do everything we possibly can,” he said.
In the short term, much of what the European Union is proposing involves switching the source of fossil fuels, and, in particular, natural gas, from Russia to other suppliers like the United States, Qatar and Azerbaijan, and filling up storage facilities as a buffer. The risk is that Europe’s actions will further raise prices, which are already about five times higher than a year ago, in a market where supplies are short in part because companies are wary of investing in a fuel that the world ultimately wants to phase out.
Over the longer term, Europe and Britain seem likely to accelerate their world-leading rollout in renewable energy and other efforts to cut emissions despite the enormous costs and intense disruptions.
“The E.U. will almost certainly throw hundreds of billions of euros at this,” said Henning Gloystein, a director for energy and climate at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm. “Once the trains have left the station, they can’t be reversed.”
The appeal of off-grid homes has grown in part because utilities have become less reliable. As natural disasters linked to climate change have increased, there have been more extended blackouts in California, Texas, Louisiana and other states.
A Critical Year for Electric Vehicles
The popularity of battery-powered cars is soaring worldwide, even as the overall auto market stagnates.
Californians are also upset that electricity rates keep rising and state policymakers have proposed reducing incentives for installing solar panels on homes connected to the grid. Installing off-grid solar and battery systems is expensive, but once the systems are up and running, they typically require modest maintenance and homeowners no longer have an electric bill.
RMI, a research organization formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute, has projected that by 2031 most California homeowners will save money by going off the grid as solar and battery costs fall and utility rates increase. That phenomenon will increasingly play out in less sunny regions like the Northeast over the following decades, the group forecasts.
David Hochschild, chairman of the California Energy Commission, a regulatory agency, said the state’s residents tend to be early adopters, noting that even a former governor, Jerry Brown, lives in an off-grid home. But Mr. Hochschild added that he was not convinced that such an approach made sense for most people. “We build 100,000 new homes a year in California, and I would guess 99.99 percent of them are connected to the grid,” he said.
Some energy experts worry that people who are going off the grid could unwittingly hurt efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is because the excess electricity that rooftop solar panels produce will no longer reach the grid, where it can replace power from coal or natural gas plants. “We don’t need everybody to cut the cord and go it alone,” said Mark Dyson, senior principal with the carbon-free electricity unit of RMI.
Solar Panels and a View
Pepe Cancino moved from Santa Monica to Nevada County in 2020 after he and his wife, Diane, lost their jobs during the pandemic. They bought five acres with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains. Mr. Cancino, 42, a former home health care worker, picked up a chain saw and an ax and began learning how to build a house and generate his own power.
When they finish their two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home this fall, the family, including their 15-year-old daughter, will generate electricity and use a well for water.
Some energy experts say utilities would not be able to produce or buy enough renewable energy to replace what would be lost from the decline in rooftop solar panels — which supplied 9 percent of the state’s electricity in 2020, more than nuclear and coal put together. California would need to set aside about a quarter of its land for renewable energy to meet its climate goals without expanding rooftop solar, said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental energy at Stanford. As a result, utilities would have to turn to natural gas and other fossil fuels.
“The only thing this is going to do is reduce rooftop solar,” Professor Jacobson said. “That will mean there will be more natural gas in the system. Every rooftop should have solar on it. You should be encouraging more of it.”
People who install solar panels on their roofs or property are still connected to the electrical grid, but they receive credit on their bills for power they produce beyond what they use. California’s proposal would cut the value of those credits, which are roughly equivalent to retail electricity rates, by about 87 percent. In addition, the measure would impose a new monthly fee on solar homeowners — about $56 for the typical rooftop system.
The monthly cost of solar and electricity for homeowners with an average rooftop system who are served by PG&E, the state’s largest utility, would jump to $215, from $133, according to the California Solar and Storage Association.
An intense campaign is underway to sway regulators. Rooftop solar companies, homeowners and activists on one side and utilities and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on the other are lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene. While the commission is independent of Mr. Newsom, he wields enormous influence. The governor recently told reporters that the regulators should change their proposal but didn’t specify how.
The electrical workers union, which did not respond to requests for comment, is playing a central role. It represents linemen, electricians and other utility employees, who usually earn more than the mostly nonunion workers who install rooftop systems. Many union members, an important constituency for Democrats, fear being left behind in the transition to green energy.
Other states are also targeting rooftop solar. Florida is considering legislation to roll back compensation to homeowners for the excess energy their panels produce, a benefit known as net energy metering.
Seven months after workers finished installing solar panels atop the Garcia family home near Stanford University, the system is little more than a roof ornament. The problem: The local utility’s equipment is so overloaded that there is no place for the electricity produced by the panels to go.
“We wasted 30,000-something dollars on a system we can’t use,” Theresa Garcia said. “It’s just been really frustrating.”
President Biden is pushing lawmakers and regulators to wean the United States from fossil fuels and counter the effects of climate change. But his ambitious goals could be upended by aging transformers and dated electrical lines that have made it hard for homeowners, local governments and businesses to use solar panels, batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and other devices that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the equipment on the electric grid was built decades ago and needs to be upgraded. It was designed for a world in which electricity flowed in one direction — from the grid to people. Now, homes and businesses are increasingly supplying energy to the grid from their rooftop solar panels.
to electricity generated by solar, wind, nuclear and other zero-emission energy sources. Yet the grid is far from having enough capacity to power all the things that can help address the effects of climate change, energy experts said.
“It’s a perfect violent storm as far as meeting the demand that we’re going to have,” said Michael Johnston, executive director of codes and standards for the National Electrical Contractors Association. “It’s no small problem.”
half of new cars sold in the country by 2030. If all of those cars were plugged in during the day when energy use is high, utilities would have to spend a lot on upgrades. But if regulators allowed more utilities to offer lower electricity rates at night, people would charge cars when there is plenty of spare capacity.
Some businesses are already finding ways to rely less on the grid when demand is high. Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen that operates an electric vehicle charging network, has installed large batteries at some charging stations to avoid paying fees that utilities impose on businesses that draw too much power.
Robert Barrosa, senior director of sales and marketing at Electrify America, said that eventually the company could help utilities by taking power when there was too much of it and supplying it when there was not enough of it.
$1,050 to $2,585 a year, according to Rewiring America. Those products are more energy efficient and electricity tends to cost less than comparable amounts of gasoline, heating oil and natural gas. Electric cars and appliances are also cheaper to maintain.
“Done right, money can go further toward a more reliable network,” Mr. Calisch said, “especially in the face of increased stress from climate change.”
Just weeks before Hurricane Ida knocked out power to much of Louisiana, leaving its residents exposed to extreme heat and humidity, the chief executive of Entergy, the state’s biggest utility company, told Wall Street that it had been upgrading power lines and equipment to withstand big storms.
“Building greater resiliency into our system is an ongoing focus,” the executive, Leo P. Denault, told financial analysts on a conference call on Aug. 4, adding that Entergy was replacing its towers and poles with equipment “able to handle higher wind loading and flood levels.”
Mr. Denault’s statements would soon be tested harshly. On the last Sunday in August, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana and dealt a catastrophic blow to Entergy’s power lines, towers and poles, many of which were built decades ago to withstand much weaker hurricanes. The company had not upgraded or replaced a lot of that equipment with more modern gear designed to survive the 150 mile-an-hour wind gusts that Ida brought to bear on the state.
A hurricane like Ida would have been a challenge to any power system built over many decades that contains a mix of dated and new equipment. But some energy experts said Entergy was clearly unprepared for the Category 4 storm despite what executives have said about efforts to strengthen its network.
a Category 2 storm, according to an analysis of regulatory filing and other company records by McCullough Research, a consulting firm based in Portland, Ore., that advises power companies and government agencies.
Entergy said that analysis was inaccurate but wouldn’t say how many of its transmission structures were built to withstand 150 mile-per-hour winds. The company has said that its towers met the safety standards in place at the time of installation but older standards often assumed wind speeds well below 150 m.p.h.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a professional group whose guidelines are widely followed by utilities and other industries, recommends that power companies that operate in areas vulnerable to hurricanes install equipment that can withstand major storms and return service quickly when systems fail. In coastal areas of Louisiana, for example, it says large transmission equipment should be designed to withstand winds of 150 m.p.h.
growing ferocity of hurricanes. The company says it had acted with alacrity. Its critics contend that it dragged its feet.
to restart a $210 million natural gas-fired plant the company opened in New Orleans last year that it said would provide power during periods of high demand, including after storms. But energy experts say it is a lot more concerning that so many of the company’s lines went down — and did so for the second year in a row.
Last year, Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, destroyed and damaged hundreds of Entergy’s towers and poles in Southwestern Louisiana. In April, Entergy told the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates its operations outside New Orleans, that the company had strengthened its equipment, including the installation of stronger distribution poles in coastal areas particularly vulnerable to high winds.
Michelle P. Bourg, who is responsible for transmission at Entergy’s Louisiana operations, told regulators that because it was too expensive to make the entire network resilient, Entergy pursued “targeted programs that cost effectively reduce the risks to reliability.”
In a statement, Entergy said its spending on transmission was working, noting that Ida destroyed or damaged 508 transmission structures, compared with 1,909 during Laura and 1,003 in Katrina. The company added that its annual investment in transmission in Louisiana and New Orleans has increased over the last eight years and totaled $926 million in 2020, when it spent extensively on repairs after Laura. The company spent $471 million on transmission in 2019.
“The facts of this storm support that we have made substantial progress in terms of resiliency since the storms that hit our system in the early 2000s — both generally and with respect to transmission in particular,” said Jerry Nappi, an Entergy spokesman.
The company declined to provide the age of damaged or destroyed transmission structures and an age range for the damaged distribution poles and equipment. Mr. Nappi acknowledged that distribution poles suffered widespread destruction and were not built to withstand winds of 130 to 150 m.p.h.
“Substantial additional investment will be required to mitigate hardship and avoid lengthy outages as increasingly powerful storms hit with increasing frequency,” he said in an email. “We are pursuing much-needed federal support for the additional hardening needed without compromising the affordability of electricity on which our customers and communities depend.”
The company’s plea for more help comes as President Biden is pushing to upgrade and expand the nation’s electricity system to address climate change as well as to harden equipment against disasters. Part of his plan includes spending tens of billions of dollars on transmission lines. Mr. Biden also wants to provide incentives for clean energy sources like solar and wind power and batteries — the kinds of improvements that community leaders in New Orleans had sought for years and that Entergy has often pushed back on.
Susan Guidry, a former member of the New Orleans City Council, said she opposed the construction of the new natural gas plant, which was located in a low-lying area near neighborhoods made up mostly of African Americans and Vietnamese Americans. Instead, she pushed for upgrades to the transmission and distribution system and more investment in solar power and batteries. The council ultimately approved Entergy’s plans for the plant over her objections.
“One of the things we argued about was that they should be upgrading transmission lines rather than building a peaking plant,” Ms. Guidry said.
In addition, she said, she called for the company to replace the wooden poles in neighborhoods with those built with stronger materials.
Robert McCullough, principal of McCullough Research, said it was hard to understand why Entergy had not upgraded towers and poles more quickly.
“Wood poles no longer have the expected lifetime in the face of climate change,” he said. “Given the repeated failures, it is going to be cost-effective to replace them with more durable options that can survive repeated Category 4 storms — including going to metal poles in many circumstances.”
Had Entergy invested more in its transmission and distribution lines and solar panels and battery systems, some green energy activists argued, the city and state would not have suffered as widespread and as long a power outage as it did after Ida.
“Entergy Louisiana needs to be held accountable for this,” said one of those activists, Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Clean Energy.
Entergy has argued that the natural gas plant was a much more affordable and reliable option for providing electricity during periods of high demand than solar panels and batteries.
Jennifer Granholm, Mr. Biden’s energy secretary, said that Ida highlighted the need for a big investment in electric grids. That might include putting more power lines serving homes and businesses under ground. Burying wires would protect them from winds, though it could make it harder to access the lines during floods.
“Clearly, as New Orleans builds back, it really does have to build back better in some areas,” Ms. Granholm said in an interview this month.
Mr. Nappi, the Entergy spokesman, said that distribution lines in some parts of New Orleans and elsewhere are already underground but that burying more of them would be expensive. “Distribution assets can be made to withstand extreme winds, through engineering or under grounding, but at significant cost and disruption to customers and to the community,” he said.
Building and installing enough solar panels to generate up to 45 percent of the country’s power needs will strain manufacturers and the energy industry, increasing demand for materials like aluminum, silicon, steel and glass. The industry will also need to find and train tens of thousands of workers and quickly. Some labor groups have said that in the rush to quickly build solar farms, developers often hire lower-paid nonunion workers rather than the union members Mr. Biden frequently champions.
Challenges like trade disputes could also complicate the push for solar power. China dominates the supply chain for solar panels, and the administration recently began blocking imports connected with the Xinjiang region of China over concerns about the use of forced labor. While many solar companies say they are working to shift away from materials made in Xinjiang, energy experts say the import ban could slow the construction of solar projects throughout the United States in the short term.
Yet, energy analysts said it would be impossible for Mr. Biden to achieve his climate goals without a big increase in the use of solar energy. “No matter how you slice it, you need solar deployments to double or quadruple in the near term,” said Michelle Davis, a principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy research and consulting firm. “Supply chain constraints are certainly on everyone’s mind.”
Administration officials pointed to changes being made by state and local officials as an example of how the country could begin to move faster toward renewable energy. Regulators in California, for example, are changing the state’s building code to require solar and batteries in new buildings.
Another big area of focus for the administration is greater use of batteries to store energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines for use at night or when the wind is not blowing. The cost of batteries has been falling but remains too high for a rapid shift to renewables and electric cars, according to many analysts.
To some solar industry officials, the Energy Department report ought to help to focus people’s minds on what is possible even if lawmakers haven’t worked out the details.
“In essence the D.O.E. is saying America needs a ton more solar, not less, and we need it today, not tomorrow,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, which represents solar developers in the state with by far the largest number of solar installations. “That simple call to action should guide every policymaking decision from city councils to legislatures and regulatory agencies across the country.”
Most of New Orleans went dark on Sunday after Hurricane Ida took out transmission lines and forced power plants offline. It was an all too familiar scene in a city that has often lost power during big storms.
But this was an outage that was never supposed to happen. The utility company Entergy opened a new natural gas power plant in the city last year, pledging that it would help keep the lights on — even during hot summer days and big storms. It was one of two natural gas plants commissioned in recent years in the New Orleans area, the other one hailed by Gov. John Bel Edwards last year as a “source of clean energy that gives our state a competitive advantage and helps our communities grow.”
The storm raises fresh questions about how well the energy industry has prepared for natural disasters, which many scientists believe are becoming more common because of climate change. This year, much of Texas was shrouded in darkness after a winter storm, and last summer officials in California ordered rolling blackouts during a heat wave.
More than a million residential and commercial customers in Louisiana were without power on Monday afternoon, and Entergy and other utilities serving the state said it would take days to assess the damage to their equipment and weeks to fully restore service across the state. One customer can be a family or a large business, so the number of people without power is most likely many times higher. In neighboring Mississippi, just under 100,000 customers were without power.
some of California’s largest and deadliest wildfires.
impossible for Texas to import power by keeping the state grid largely isolated from the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight.
add more transmission lines to carry more solar and wind power from one region of the country to another. But some energy experts said the increasing frequency of devastating hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters argues against a big investment in power lines and for greater investment in smaller-scale systems like rooftop solar panels and batteries. Because small systems are placed at many homes, businesses, schools and other buildings, some continue to function even when others are damaged, providing much-needed energy during and after disasters.
Susan Guidry, a former member of the New Orleans City Council who voted against the Entergy plant, said she had worried that a storm like Ida could wreak havoc on her city and its energy system. She had wanted the city and utility to consider other options. But she said her fellow Council members and the utility had ignored those warnings.
“They said that they had dealt with that problem,” Ms. Guidry said. “The bottom line is they should have instead been upgrading their transmission and investing in renewable energy.”
Numerous community groups and city leaders opposed the gas-fired power plant, which is just south of Interstate 10 and Lake Pontchartrain, bordering predominantly African American and Vietnamese American neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the City Council approved the plant, which began commercial operations in May 2020. It generates power mainly at times of peak demand.
About a year earlier, Entergy opened a larger gas power plant in nearby St. Charles Parish. Leo P. Denault, Entergy’s chairman and chief executive, last year called that plant “a significant milestone along the clean energy journey we began more than 20 years ago.”
Some utilities have turned to burying transmission lines to protect them from strong winds and storms, but Mr. Gasteiger said that was expensive and could cause its own problems.
“Generally speaking, it’s not that the utilities are not willing to do it,” he said. “It’s that people aren’t willing to pay for it. Usually it’s a cost issue. And undergrounding can make it more difficult to locate and fix” problems.
Big changes to electric grids and power plants are likely to take years, but activists and residents of New Orleans say officials should explore solutions that can be rolled out more quickly, especially as tens of thousands of people face days or weeks without electricity. Some activists want officials to put a priority on investments in rooftop solar, batteries and microgrids, which can power homes and commercial buildings even when the larger grid goes down.
“We keep walking by the solutions to keep people safe in their homes,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer group based in New Orleans. “When these events happen, then we’re in crisis mode because instead we’re spending billions of dollars every year now to rebuild the same system that leaves people in the dark, in a dire situation.”
Some residents have already invested in small-scale energy systems for themselves. Julie Graybill and her husband, Bob Smith, installed solar panels and batteries at their New Orleans home after Hurricane Isaac blew through Louisiana in 2012. They lost power for five days after Isaac, at times going to their car for air-conditioning with their two older dogs, said Ms. Graybill, 67, who retired from the Tulane University School of Medicine.
“We would sit in the car about every hour,” she said. “My husband said, ‘We are never doing this again.’” Mr. Smith, 73, who is also retired, worked as an engineer at Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company.
The couple have set up a little power station on their porch so neighbors can charge their phones and other items. Only a few other homes on their street have solar panels, but no one else nearby has batteries, which can store the power that panels generate and dispense it when the grid goes down.
“We’re told we’re not going to have power for three weeks,” Ms. Graybill said. “The only people who have power are people with generators or solar panels. We lived through Katrina. This is not Katrina, so we’re lucky.”
The nation is facing once in a generation choices about how energy ought to be delivered to homes, businesses and electric cars — decisions that could shape the course of climate change and determine how the United States copes with wildfires, heat waves and other extreme weather linked to global warming.
On one side, large electric utilities and President Biden want to build thousands of miles of power lines to move electricity created by distant wind turbines and solar farms to cities and suburbs. On the other, some environmental organizations and community groups are pushing for greater investment in rooftop solar panels, batteries and local wind turbines.
There is an intense policy struggle taking place in Washington and state capitals about the choices that lawmakers, energy businesses and individuals make in the next few years, which could lock in an energy system that lasts for decades. The divide between those who want more power lines and those calling for a more decentralized energy system has split the renewable energy industry and the environmental movement. And it has created partnerships of convenience between fossil fuel companies and local groups fighting power lines.
At issue is how quickly the country can move to cleaner energy and how much electricity rates will increase.
senators from both parties agreed to in June. That deal includes the creation of a Grid Development Authority to speed up approvals for transmission lines.
Most energy experts agree that the United States must improve its aging electric grids, especially after millions of Texans spent days freezing this winter when the state’s electricity system faltered.
“The choices we make today will set us on a path that, if history is a barometer, could last for 50 to 100 years,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University. “At stake is literally the health and economic well-being of every American.”
The option supported by Mr. Biden and some large energy companies would replace coal and natural gas power plants with large wind and solar farms hundreds of miles from cities, requiring lots of new power lines. Such integration would strengthen the control that the utility industry and Wall Street have over the grid.
batteries installed at homes, businesses and municipal buildings.
Those batteries kicked in up to 6 percent of the state grid’s power supply during the crisis, helping to make up for idled natural gas and nuclear power plants. Rooftop solar panels generated an additional 4 percent of the state’s electricity.
become more common in recent years.
Some environmentalists argue that greater use of rooftop solar and batteries is becoming more essential because of climate change.
After its gear ignited several large wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric began shutting off power on hot and windy days to prevent fires. The company emerged from bankruptcy last year after amassing $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires caused by its equipment, including transmission lines.
Elizabeth Ellenburg, an 87-year-old cancer survivor in Napa, Calif., bought solar panels and a battery from Sunrun in 2019 to keep her refrigerator, oxygen equipment and appliances running during PG&E’s power shut-offs, a plan that she said has worked well.
“Usually, when PG&E goes out it’s not 24 hours — it’s days,” said Ms. Ellenburg, a retired nurse. “I need to have the ability to use medical equipment. To live in my own home, I needed power other than the power company.”
working to improve its equipment. “Our focus is to make both our distribution and transmission system more resilient and fireproof,” said Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s chief risk officer.
But spending on fire prevention by California utilities has raised electricity rates, and consumer groups say building more power lines will drive them even higher.
Average residential electricity rates nationally have increased by about 14 percent over the last decade even though average household energy use rose just over 1 percent.
2019 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research arm of the Energy Department, found that greater use of rooftop solar can reduce the need for new transmission lines, displace expensive power plants and save the energy that is lost when electricity is moved long distances. The study also found that rooftop systems can put pressure on utilities to improve or expand neighborhood wires and equipment.
Texas was paralyzed for more than four days by a deep freeze that shut down power plants and disabled natural gas pipelines. People used cars and grills and even burned furniture to keep warm; at least 150 died.
One reason for the failure was that the state has kept the grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas largely disconnected from the rest of the country to avoid federal oversight. That prevented the state from importing power and makes Texas a case for the interconnected power system that Mr. Biden wants.
Consider Marfa, an artsy town in the Chihuahuan Desert. Residents struggled to stay warm as the ground was blanketed with snow and freezing rain. Yet 75 miles to the west, the lights were on in Van Horn, Texas. That town is served by El Paso Electric, a utility attached to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, a grid that ties together 14 states, two Canadian provinces and a Mexican state.
$1.4 million, compared with about $1 million to Donald J. Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In Washington, developers of large solar and wind projects are pushing for a more connected grid while utilities want more federal funding for new transmission lines. Advocates for rooftop solar panels and batteries are lobbying Congress for more federal incentives.
Separately, there are pitched battles going on in state capitals over how much utilities must pay homeowners for the electricity generated by rooftop solar panels. Utilities in California, Florida and elsewhere want lawmakers to reduce those rates. Homeowners with solar panels and renewable energy groups are fighting those efforts.
Building power lines is hard.
Despite Mr. Biden’s support, the utility industry could struggle to add power lines.
Many Americans resist transmission lines for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Powerful economic interests are also at play. In Maine, for instance, a campaign is underway to stop a 145-mile line that will bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.
New England has phased out coal but still uses natural gas. Lawmakers are hoping to change that with the help of the $1 billion line, called the New England Clean Energy Connect.
This spring, workmen cleared trees and installed steel poles in the forests of western Maine. First proposed a decade ago, the project was supposed to cut through New Hampshire until the state rejected it. Federal and state regulators have signed off on the Maine route, which is sponsored by Central Maine Power and HydroQuebec.
But the project is mired in lawsuits, and Maine residents could block it through a November ballot measure.
set a record in May, and some scientists believe recent heat waves were made worse by climate change.
“Transmission projects take upward of 10 years from conception to completion,” said Douglas D. Giuffre, a power expert at IHS Markit. “So if we’re looking at decarbonization of the power sector by 2035, then this all needs to happen very rapidly.”