No moonshot needed: A clean energy future is within our grasp
© Greg Nash

This week, Americans from across the country working in wind energy have made their way to Washington. They have one mission in mind—educating Congress about the ways U.S. wind power is benefitting their communities while powering the future with reliable, affordable, clean electricity.

And there’s an important point about that clean energy Congress needs to understand—we don’t need a moonshot to get there. It’s true that our power system is undergoing a period of rapid change as new innovations replace legacy technologies. But there is a key difference between landing a man on the moon and advancing the way we power our lives.

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Back in the Apollo space age days of the 1960’s, we didn’t know how we were going to reach our final destination. Each step before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind required a new invention or the creation of a process that didn’t exist before. This time we don’t have that problem--we already have all the tools we need to create a clean energy future.

Today, wind and solar power are the fastest growing sources of new electricity in the U.S. In many places they’re also the most cost-effective forms of electricity. American ingenuity has driven down the cost of wind power by 69 percent since 2009. Through hard work, imagination and American know-how, we have solved the problem of generating electricity out of thin air. We’ve landed the moonshot and are taking technology to the next level.

“Ten years ago we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability,” said Bruce Rew, Vice President of Operations for the Southwest Power Pool, which manages the grid across parts of 14 states. “Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent. It’s not even our ceiling.”

Not only has wind energy become competitive in price, it has also grown more reliable. Today, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota all generate at least 30 percent of their electricity using wind. A single modern wind turbine can power 750 homes for an entire year, and the U.S. has enough installed wind energy to power 30 million homes.

Likewise, electric vehicle sales are booming, battery storage seems to progress on a near daily basis, and offshore wind is taking shape off the U.S. coastline. Yes, we need to continue driving down costs relentlessly while working to improve these products every day. But the tools are here; we don’t need to wait around for a new breakthrough. And the technology we need to fully harness the potential of these tools hardly requires a moonshot. In fact, we have had it available since the days of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong—transmission.

It’s time to update and expand America’s electric grid to meet 21st century needs. Just like the interstate highway system provided the backbone for over five decades of U.S. economic growth by linking businesses and supply chains, building new transmission will create a system that is stronger and better networked. This means grid operators can more easily, effectively and affordably balance power supply and demand and respond to unforeseen complications. It also means a secure platform to grow the high-tech US economy of today and tomorrow. Transmission infrastructure investment boosts both our national and our economic security. 

Transmission investment will also allow us to tap into the country’s most wind- and solar-rich areas and deliver that electricity to the towns, cities and manufacturing hubs where energy demand is highest. All of this makes the power system more reliable while lowering costs for American families and businesses, creating thousands of well-paying jobs along the way. This is the backbone of a clean energy economy.

We have already done the hard part-- we’re through the moonshot phase. The technology is here and the future has arrived. Let’s get to work.

Tom Kiernan is president and CEO of the American Wind Energy Association.