Ready for something different? (It really gets depressing writing about war and political dysfunction. Besides, all the news isn’t bad, although it sometimes seems that way…)

There is a mystifying (at least to me ) disconnect between the truly remarkable ability of humans to create tools–technologies that make our lives immeasurably better–and our evident inability to engage in rational self-government. That said, it’s worth exploring some of those technological breakthroughs, and the policy decisions they enable, if only to remind ourselves that we humans can, on occasion, be productive, rational beings.

A recent example, courtesy of the New York Times: Vermont, where Green Mountain Power is asking state regulators to let it buy batteries it will install at customers’ homes, saying doing so will be cheaper than putting up more power lines.

Many electric utilities are putting up lots of new power lines as they rely more on renewable energy and try to make grids more resilient in bad weather. But a Vermont utility is proposing a very different approach: It wants to install batteries at most homes to make sure its customers never go without electricity.

The company, Green Mountain Power, proposed buying batteries, burying power lines and strengthening overhead cables in a filing with state regulators on Monday. It said its plan would be cheaper than building a lot of new lines and power plants.

The plan is a big departure from how U.S. utilities normally do business. Most of them make money by building and operating power lines that deliver electricity from natural gas power plants or wind and solar farms to homes and businesses. Green Mountain — a relatively small utility serving 270,000 homes and businesses — would still use that infrastructure but build less of it by investing in television-size batteries that homeowners usually buy on their own.

“Call us the un-utility,” Mari McClure, Green Mountain’s chief executive, said in an interview before the company’s filing. “We’re completely flipping the model, decentralizing it.”

This plan has all kinds of benefits, not least because providing batteries to customers turned out to be cheaper than paying recovery costs when lines went down and building more power lines to improve the system.

About those power lines: I have often wondered why utilities don’t bury them. They are not only ugly blights on the visual environment, they are vulnerable to all kinds of damage–high winds, fires, even automobiles crashing into the poles. I realize that burying the lines would be more expensive “up front,” but  it has always seemed to me that burying them in accessible conduits would save the costs and time expended when those lines went down, or had to be replaced for other reasons.

The battery idea is even better.

Critics of the industry have pointed out that utilities haven’t been particularly innovative; instead, they’ve continued to spend large sums on new long-distance power lines, that–as the linked article notes– can take years or even decades to build because of environmental reviews and local opposition.

A May report by the Brattle Group, a research firm based in Boston, concluded that utilities could save up to $35 billion a year if they invested in smaller-scale energy projects like home batteries and rooftop solar panels that can be built more easily and quickly.

Green Mountain’s proposal seems to recognize that reality, said Leah Stokes, an associate professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It really is the model, especially if you’re worried about power outages,” she said. “It really could become the example for the rest of the country.”

Ms. McClure said the high cost of large-scale power projects threatened to raise electricity rates so much that many customers might struggle to pay for energy.

According to the article, power outages cost utilities in the United States about $150 billion a year. Experts have projected that modernizing U.S. electric grids could cost “well into the trillions of dollars.” Green Mountain has been spending roughly $20 million to $25 million  each year just managing trees and other vegetation around its power lines. In an omen of climate change to come, the utility spent about $55 million on storm recovery this year–far more than the less than $10 million a year it averaged between 2015 and 2022.

Batteries will massively reduce outages and save maintenance dollars. Getting rid of those ugly power lines is just the cherry on top of the sundae.

If we could only apply these same sorts of innovative ideas to our political system….


  1. I like that GMP is “thinking outside the bo” but I guess my question about batteries is: How will they charge them? It sounds great for an outage but eventually powerlines will need to be reconnected and battery charges don’t last “forever”. Its an interesting idea and worth looking at, especially in a area prone to snow & ice as Northern New England & New York tend to be, for a short term solution until the grid can be fixed.

  2. I am an early adopter of all things technical. It’s the engineer in me, I guess.

    I was, therefore, following the science early in appreciation of the possibility, then the reality of climate change and how it would affect my grandchildren. I was duly impressed when the UN, also following climate change science, formed the IPC to advise the General Assembly of anything science, especially the big one at the time, climate change.

    Utilities got “woke” too. They knew better than I how long it takes them to do anything that requires large capital expenditures. Years. Decades sometimes. So, they followed science and the IPC’s advice. Start now, or climate change in the future will be so much more catastrophic.

    Utilities typically manage the production and distribution of electricity. Their final customer varies somewhat, but probably a tiny utility like Green Mountain Power; it’s who pays money to them, in this case, the individual private or corporate user.

    Batteries store electricity. My battery technology-dependent electric car does what a supply chain that begins in the Middle East more often than not, and ends at local gas stations does. It does it much more cost-effectively. My driving energy starts at a very old but local electricity supplier, Niagra Falls, and goes through Niagra Mohawk Corp distribution to my local supplier, Fairport Electric. They distribute it to my house for $.05/KW. My car stores the electricity in my car’s big battery rather than a gas tank and lets me do local stuff for about a nickel every four miles. Our 25mpg big gasoline car charges our budget about 10X that.

    As a result of rapid battery technology development, they are so much cheaper than they used to be and can be quickly built less expensively now to accommodate many energy storage needs from our cell phones up to power utility sizes.

  3. Is GMP an actual public utility, or a former public utility turned private (looking at you, Duke and AES)? Somehow, I can’t see our local utility companies, who put profit and shareholders above the public good, and who fought tooth and nail against solar, being on board with something like batteries.

  4. This is a very clever idea, in our household we’ve actually thought about having a battery because we live in an area where we do have quite a few power outages because buildings are always going up. Believe it or not over the last few years we had a few squirrels get into transformers and we’ve lost her power for a little while, like maybe a half day or or so. And many other countries like the Philippines, you’ll see power outages on a regular basis. In our neighborhood, we are seeing an increase in solar panels going in over the last two years. Good ideas take a while to catch on. Maybe Duke energy would do the same thing for people in the state of Indiana.
    When interest rates come back down and the economy ramps up more, it would be a good idea to install solar panels and get your own battery ahead of the curve in my opinion.

  5. Interesting approach. Quite a contrast from Florida who recently tried to discourage adoption of solar by only allowing your panels to feed the grid while not allowing you to use any of it. They’d sell you 100% of your requirements at retail, but only buy your panels’ output at wholesale (or less). I’m not sure if that succeeded, though.

    I don’t know all the reasons utilities don’t bury power lines, but one reason is that the cost factor is on the order of 10:1, which is huge. Bury 20 miles or string 200? That kind of cost differential can pay for a lot of maintenance.

    I found this illustrated article which has a picture of a single very large cable that’s the diameter of a saucer; three are required and the size shown would be enough for a city. Heaven forbid the insulation is compromised and it needed to be repaired or replaced. I don’t know enough to be able to say if such cable can or should be run through a conduit or if it’s better just to bury it as is.

  6. Sheila, thanks for starting my day with a little ray of sunshine. I would add that there are many positive stories of this kind being reported on but not always noticed by many people. Those stories rarely make the headlines, but are important.

  7. Locally installed batteries can smooth out electrical demand (as well as provide backup power).
    It means you don’t have to size your electrical grid to handle “peak demand” but instead more of an average demand. Locally distributed solar and wind -combined with batteries- can also help reduce the amount of wires as well as increase reliability. That said, small battery and solar installs are more expensive to install and maintain than utility scale. But it might very well work for Vermont.

    Buried power is also much more expensive to install and maintain. And for very high voltage lines it would be prohibitive. Building local battery sites does change the entire equation though somewhat.

  8. Sheila, having just returned from two+ weeks, 2,000 mile bus tour of both NZ’s north and south islands, I look forward to your reflections on government and culture.

  9. Our utility co offers price incentives if we agree to let them remotely shut off heavy appliances during peak load times, like electric water heaters on hot afternoons. Seems like having residential batteries would also make some form of that concept more viable. Good work, beancounters.

  10. Abandon the grid and stop for the pipelines embrace the liquid nitrogen academy I will be producing cars powered with liquid nitrogen here in Flint, Michigan faced upon a design, a nurse engineer, and I came up with in the 70s. The Avon, my flagship vehicle, will sell for For $4,000
    with a five year warranty
    To end our dependence upon the Shawty Arabian

  11. Acting as a model for the rest of the industry would be nice.
    Of course Florida gets in the way of sanity with DeDumbness in office!

  12. Once more people understand the tech behind our power grid, they will see how utilities and governments work together to screw the consumer.

    The opposite, of course, is GMP, and if folks start demanding what’s green and available, the tide may turn.

    One can hope the same is true for the dysfunction in Washington. I know; I’m still a little groggy this morning.

  13. I see no reason why the Vermont Plan would not work in areas with millions more power consumers, what with the efficiency of such massive demand in terms of per unit costs of purchase and installation of batteries that end power outages. I suspect that such arguments in favor of the status quo are more about what goes on in the utilities’ boardrooms (CEO compensation and shareholder dividends) than about consumer convenience via cheaper and more certain power whatever the weather, right of way maintenance, overtime of electricians in storms that have broken power lines, general loss to the overall economy via stay at home employees etc.

    Mitch D. > I call your DeDumbness DeFascist, and why? Well, to name a few of many reasons > He says he has the authority to tell us what we can and can’t say or read; has made criminals out of librarians, has given politicians the authority to set curricular standards for schools while redefining tenure for them thar commie perfessers, kidnapped migrants etc., all while telling us that he has made Florida an object lesson in FREEDOM! Huh? I consider him to be a power-mad fascist in search of yet more power on a national level who is now in the institution-destruction phase of ending our democracy under the guise of obviously reverse policymaking.

    With Republican politicians like DeFascist, Gaetz, Scott, Trump and others hailing from Florida, one can hope that state will keep its occasional threat to secede.

  14. I worked for AES Indiana for 12 years as a IT network engineer, but I got a pretty rounded view of the business. This is a company that has been in business for almost 100 years, is for profit that make a lot of money in Indiana’s pro-business regulatory environment, and is a protected monopoly that spends a lot of lobbying money in the state house to keep everything status quo.

    For almost 100 years they have had the exact same business model, huge generation plants, delivering and selling electricity to customers because they’re the only game in town. They do it as cheaply as they can while still meeting regulatory requirements. Any change from that model is viewed a direct threat. Everyone from crusty old electrical engineers and linemen, all the way up to the CEO push back any change. AES wants to build huge solar farms that they control. They want big wind farms that they control.

    Engineers and CEOs see home solar as a threat. CEOs see a threat to the bottom line when they are forced to buy electricity from sources they can’t control. Engineers see the threat from electricity flowing onto the grid from sources they can’t control. Linemen see the safety threat of electricity flowing onto the grid from batteries and solar panels they can’t control.

    But, in Hawaii the regulatory body has seen the writing on the wall and regulatory agency and the power company are now treating home solar producers are allies and partners. All of the issues that a “traditional” power company sees as threats can be overcome with just a little planning, and without huge changes to the local distribution system. It’s good to see GMP has realized it can embrace the same approach.

    I suspect it will take breaking the strangle hold of lobbying dollars from the big utilities to make changes in Indiana.

    As a side note. I lived in England for several years, and once we had a whole day of gale force winds, gusting to 50 and 60 mph. I remember the lights blinking a few times, but we never lost power. It turns out that almost everything except the big high voltage cross country transmission lines are underground. It gags me when we have a big weather event anywhere in the US and people are without power for days. In the rebuild we rush back to put exactly the same thing that got blown to the ground in place and say “oh well, I guess that just the way it’s going to be”.

  15. Sheila, you found the answer to our political stalemate:
    Bury the Congress and the Indiana legislature underground! Let Hamas build the tunnels and keep these rodents out of sight until they can be productive members of society.

  16. They’ll never admit it, but power companies are spending mi!!ions on renewable energy technology. They know that we’re on the downside of the supply of fossil fuel. Now they’ve taking steps to make sure they have control of everything.

  17. Having worked in the utility field for many many years. This absolutely works, and it is done in several different areas already. The batteries are kept topped off by a battery tender, kind of like a trickle charger. But these chargers are scheduled to go on during off-peak hours. Usually in the middle of the night. Now on how depleted your battery is, in other words if it’s a very hot day and you drain the battery severely, The battery charger or battery tender will up the amperage. The only problem with that, as if there’s a terrible storm, and power lines don’t get put up or repaired for more than a day, The battery tender will be useless. That’s where solar panels come in. And those are not cheap. It’s great for solar panel manufacturers, but the drawbacks are a shaded roof, or, severely overcast skies for long periods of time, or say some cataclysm, like a volcanic eruption and a lot of ash covers the panels and stops sunlight from getting to the solar panels. Best case scenario, get a propane tank and a very good backup generator, something that might last several months without having to refuel. Hydrogen fuel cells are another option, but the expense factor is off the charts.

    These mini nukes kind of like Pebble bed reactors, can be seeded all over the place, And if they bury the cables in the ground instead of putting them on poles, you won’t have to worry about storms knocking the power out. Technologically, that would be the most dependable. Somewhere in the future they might have small fusion devices for each home, but that technology is many decades away if at all.

  18. As Dan and others have pointed out, it is our immutable believe the big business (or their ever powerful lobbyists) that hinders change.

    It would make most sense of every structure to have combinations of batteries and solar panels. Remember, the hottest summer day and the coldest winter day share the benefits of cloudless skies that could help cut peak demand. Battery technology is constantly improving, as is solar cell technology.

    We also tend to think “all or none”. Don’t anything for individual homes, only huge wind/solar farms make in this frame of mind. Over thirty years ago, a company in Niles, Illinois was offering environmentally friendly solutions to powering buildings. For our old apartment building turned condo, they had a plan to save about 25%-30% of our electric costs. Some residents said “big deal”, but that minor amount would have been important if we had the resources for the initial investment.

    As for buried lines, I don’t know the long-term economics of this, but corporate America never takes the long view. Bonuses are based and THIS quarter. I do remember the old phone lines. They were buried and had their own power (much lower amounts to be sure). Thunderstorms and ice storms might have taken out the power, but your phone still worked.

  19. Just discovered this week that my utility provider will bring a very large solar farm online in 2025. It helps that AZ had the sunshine, but I believe the decision is based more on the levels of water for electricity generation at Hoover Dam, which is where our current supply comes from. I’m ever hopeful that the new fusion nuclear small reactors will remove industrial usage from the power grids in the future. My cousin works for a steel mill in AR and his company is investigating SMR. Imagine, generating 10 years of electricity for thousands of homes with a reactor that constructed in a factory and shipped overland in any old 18 wheeler to be installed onsite. Bearing mind, we are discussing the same reactors that presently power every air craft carrier and all our submarines. Proven infrastructure, and at least one company has secured all approvals to proceed. It will change the lives of the next generations.

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