Will he take people's land to build a national grid when local networks for energy renewables may do?
To justify taking homes and farms to build the Interstate highway, President Eisenhower cited a security need: Military vehicles must move fast in case of war. Now President Obama, citing a need to curb global warming, wants new transmission lines across America to carry electricity from carbon-free energy sources. Will he also use federal muscle to take people's land, even wilderness?
The question hangs like a sparking high-tension wire over Mr. Obama's plans to plow $11 billion – part of his economic stimulus – into a "smart grid," which is critical to his ambitious goal to curb fossil fuel use by 2020.
Even without a need to help renewables transmit electrons, the nation's electric grid needs an upgrade. Its structure hasn't changed much from the days of Thomas Edison. Blackouts, such as the big one in 2003 that left 50 million people in the dark, are increasing. Its 164,000 miles of lines and 9,200 generating plants are ill-equipped to accept power from small-scale sources such as wind, geothermal, and biomass.
Yet Obama wants to double renewable energy within three years and bring it "to every corner of our nation." Without smashing through local resistance and environmental concerns to new transmission lines, he's unlikely to reach his goal.
One problem is that the best sites for renewables are generally not near major cities. Sun is plentiful in the Southwest and wind in the Great Plains. Most Americans live near the coasts.