This month, I’ve been meeting with a variety of organizations and leaders in the clean energy field, who have all been helpful in sharing their thoughts on what needs be done to get more of our electricity here in northern New Mexico from clean, renewable and sustainable sources like solar and wind.

While it’s true that New Mexico has abundant solar and wind resources to generate power, what’s standing in the way of getting more clean energy onto the grid is storage and distribution issues. I’ve heard this from many experts in the energy field, and I’m also familiar with the problem because of my own research work in materials science.

Put simply, it’s one thing to generate solar or wind power. It’s another, more difficult thing to have that power available on the grid when and where it’s needed.

Capturing solar and wind energy is easy and inexpensive. But the technology to store that power so it’s available when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing is still underdeveloped and expensive.

Since a utility company needs a constant supply of power, they can’t just shut everything down with the sun goes behind a cloud. That means that even if they’re running on solar or wind, they often have to make a last minute purchase of coal or natural gas generated power off the grid to keep everyone’s lights on. And as we all know, buying something that you absolutely have to have right away means you’re going to pay a lot more for it than if you buy it with more advance notice. (Think about how expensive it is, for example, to buy an air conditioner at Home Depot during a heat wave, versus when it’s 10 below outside.)

What does this mean for clean energy? It means that if we want more clean energy powering our homes and businesses, we need to make it a priority to invest in the development of more cost-effective and environmentally friendly methods to store that power once it’s generated. This research and development can be done here in New Mexico to help our environment, meet our energy needs and create high paying jobs.

I recently toured the Los Alamos Smart Grid Project, a joint partnership with the Los Alamos County Public Utility Commission, NEDO (New Energy & Industrial Technology Development Organization of Japan), and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Los Alamos Smart Grid is an experimental program that uses climate models to predict weather patterns so that a utility company can anticipate when the sun is going to go behind a cloud or the wind’s going to stop blowing, which in turn gives them more lead time in buying supplemental power from the grid. This, in turn, makes integrating a greater percentage of clean energy more cost-effective.

The smart grid facility consists of 2 megawatts of photovoltaic power built over the top of a landfill. The idea is to penetrate a neighborhood of about 2,000 homes with about 25 to 75 percent of renewable energy using the smart grid system. When the Smart Grid is refined, it can serve as a model for all of New Mexico and the rest of the country in how to put more clean energy onto the grid and reduce carbon emissions, pollution and dependence on foreign oil. This is a great example of how we can draw more international investment to NM for things that are good for our environment, our culture, and our economy.

Because of the technological challenges with storage and transfer of sustainable energy like wind and solar, it’s likely that for the foreseeable future, we probably will still need fuels that are instantaneously on demand, and that probably means that CO2 producing fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal are going to continue to be part of our energy plan at least short term. But with innovative ideas like smart grids and investment in storage, we can begin to minimize the need for traditional fuels and make clean energy a much bigger part of our energy strategy.