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How Are Renewables Faring? Not So Badly.

Some of this is slightly crusty news, but it's been remarkable to watch how quickly investors are flocking to alternative-energy projects, even in the current recession. Last week, ITC Holdings—an investor-owned transmission company—announced a plan to build a $10-$12 billion network of power lines to move 12,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity from turbines in the Dakotas and Minnesota to major cities in the Midwest like Chicago. If all goes well, the plan could reduce CO2 emissions equivalent to seven or more large coal-fired plants. It's funny, a couple of friends and acquaintances have asked me recently whether this whole wind business is ever actually going to happen. But it is! Right here.

And while we're at it, Joe Romm recently wrote, yet again, about the need for a new national transmission "backbone" that could carry electricity generated by wind in the Midwest and elsewhere to population centers. ITC's project is only a first step—if we'd like wind power to produce, say, 20 percent of the country's electricity by 2024 (something the Energy Department claims is doable), then we'll need about $80 billion worth of new transmission lines. That's daunting, but on the upside, doing so would yield a net savings of some $12 billion per year, thanks to wind's low production costs. Much of this money will come from private investors, though, as ITC notes, they may need "regulatory assurances and incentives from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."

In related news, Alexis Madrigal of Wired reports that a West Coast utility, Southern California Edison, just struck a deal with BrightSource to install a concentrated solar-thermal plant in the desert outside Los Angeles that would produce an impressive 1,300 megawatts worth of electricity. It's the biggest solar deal in history—bigger than even the largest nuclear plant and enough to power 850,000 homes. We've talked before about how solar thermal has a lot of potential to produce electricity on a large scale (even baseload electricity, if you find some way to store it); now we're going to see if it works. Interestingly, one utility official thinks electricity from the plant won't be any costlier than the current market price of electricity in California—and it will help provide a hedge against volatile natural-gas prices.

It's also worth noting that the solar project likely wouldn't have gotten off the ground without California's renewable-electricity law for utilities. Nearly 30 states have these laws and Congress will soon consider passing a national standard. These laws are one of the few things keeping the clean-energy sector from collapsing right now, given that gas and oil prices have plummeted, so that's a point in favor. (One of the more compelling arguments against these portfolio standards is that they're slightly inefficient—we should just cap utility emissions and let them find their own way to meet their targets. That's fair, but... we don't have carbon caps.)

--Bradford Plumer