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High prices, infrastructure bottlenecks and climate change fears have all prompted New England to make a big switch to renewable energy sources. But What happens when our old-fashioned power grid has to make room for wind and solar? What are the consequences when this new clean energy system relies on fossil fuels to fill the gaps?

The Big Switch is a project of the New England News Collaborative, where we explore our energy system at a moment of big change. We'll look at energy storage and production, efforts at efficiency and conservation, current demands on the grid, and the battle over where to put the wind turbines, solar panels, and yes, the fossil fuel plants that keep our lights on.

A new type of energy-efficient construction is drawing attention in the U.S. It’s called “passive housing” -- residences built to achieve ultra-low energy use. It’s so efficient that developers can eliminate central heating systems altogether. Imported from Germany, it's been a boutique building style until recently, with eco-minded home owners making costly upfront investments to downsize their carbon footprints. But now, New England is joining a surge in large-scale passive housing development.

For more than half a century, a massive, oil-fired plant has been churning out electricity from an island in the heart of Maine’s Casco Bay, where sailors use its towering smokestack for navigation. The old generator is expensive to run and dirtier than new technologies, so these days it comes on only a few times a year. Nonetheless, since December, the wires on the island have been humming pretty much nonstop.

New England gets about half its energy from natural gas, a huge jump from a few years ago. But many environmentalists are pushing back on big investments in gas-fired plants, just as renewables like wind and solar are taking off. In Rhode Island, we look at the controversy over whether to build another gas-fired plant in a small town.

We can't control when the sun shines and the wind blows. That means sometimes extra renewable energy gets dumped, or a wind plant is told to power down. One Vermont startup is hoping it can use a humble appliance in your basement -- your water heater -- as a storage device for extra electricity.

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We can't control when the sun shines and the wind blows. That means sometimes extra renewable energy gets dumped, or a wind plant is told to power down. One Vermont startup is hoping it can use a humble appliance in your basement -- your water heater -- as a storage device for extra electricity.

Credit: Ryan Caron King

There are wind projects throughout New England, but Connecticut hasn’t joined the movement. The state doesn’t have a lot of wind or a lot of available space, and only recently lifted a ban on wind turbine projects. In Colebrook, Connecticut, we find out why it's such a challenge.

New England gets nearly 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources, with more on the way. But that change is posing challenges for the region’s electric grid -- like in Vermont, where solar power is booming, changing the landscape and transforming the way we buy, sell, and transmit electricity.

A grid-scale diesel generator near Mike Elkins' furniture-making company can quickly deliver 500 kilowatts of electricity to the Boothbay area.
Credit: Fred Bever, MPBN

A major transformation in the way energy is made, delivered, and used is happening, and it’s disrupting the traditional business model of electric utility companies. That model includes building big infrastructure projects to transmit electricity. One startup company in Maine is averting the need to build a costly new transmission line.