Where urgency meets opportunity

Climate concerns have been around for 30 years—and yet progress towards getting carbon out of our energy system simply isn’t moving fast enough.

Yes, there have been great gains in technology and renewable energy has become the cheapest form of energy. Utilities, corporations, state and local governments across the country, and the world, are responding by committing to decarbonization goals. Customers are demanding it.

In spite of all that, 2018 was the world’s worst year for carbon emissions.

The science lays bare the stark reality. Trend charts show worsening levels of CO2 emissions and concentrations in the atmosphere, increasing global temperatures, shrinking ice masses in the arctic and Antarctic, rising sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, increasing acidity at the oceans’ surface threatening the growth of phytoplankton, which is the very foundation of the oceans’ food chain. There are also worsening trends for species extinctions, wildfires, extreme weather events costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and thawing of the permafrost which begets a negative feedback loop with the release of CO2 and methane which has been trapped in the permafrost for centuries.

The charts show that the climate of Minneapolis in 60 years, during my children’s lifetime, will be similar to that which exists now at Iowa’s border with Missouri in the best case or more like Kansas City in the worst case.

The United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning earlier this year, as did the United States government in its 4th Assessment on Climate Change: if we don’t drastically reduce carbon emissions globally the consequences will be catastrophic.

Trend charts show the pace of change and there’s one clear pattern. The change vectors are not linear. They are exponential. That is to say they are accelerating.

But there is room for hope.

Market demand for renewable energy in the U.S. is increasing rapidly. Trends show that the cost of renewable energy, particularly utility scale wind and solar, have been and are continuing to drop dramatically and are now the cheapest form of energy. The cost of storage is falling dramatically. They also show that state, city, corporate, and utility commitments to decarbonize are dramatic and accelerating.

While transportation is now the largest single source of carbon emissions, the auto industry is making huge investments in electric car and battery technology. Electric vehicles, partially or fully powered by electricity from batteries or a fuel cell, now cost the same as the average gas-fueled vehicle and are dropping rapidly in price. By 2030, electric vehicles are projected to be the cheapest form of transportation. Electric buses already have a lower cost of ownership than diesel buses.

This transformation in the transportation sector will drive growth in the electric industry after a decade of stagnant growth. It will be happening while much of the aging (40-50 year old) fleet of fossil and nuclear generation becomes uneconomic and gets retired. Together, growth in demand for electricity and the simultaneous retirement of a majority of the current fleet of generators means that a massive investment in new carbon-free generation is imminent.

These trends, just like the climate-related trends, are accelerating. This is where urgency meets opportunity. Decarbonizing the energy system is good economics. It’s good for development, for businesses, for consumers, for the environment, and most important of all, good for future generations. It’s also a smart move for global political dynamics. A warmer climate, and all of the stresses it forces on economies, and the health and well-being of people around the world, is destabilizing an already shaky world order.

Regional transmission organizations (RTOs), utilities, legislators, and regulators need to respond in ways that are not “business as usual”. Our region needs policies that “de-risk” investments in a cleaner grid so that the market can perform its magic in attracting capital for investment while driving innovation. We need smart policy and market updates that fully take advantage of the lowest cost energy sources and fully value carbon-free energy. Fossil fuels simply are not paying their way in the current energy system.

RTOs, utilities, and venture capitalists must embrace a new energy system and get busy planning it. They need to anticipate the energy system of the future by making plans that consider these accelerated trends. There is urgency in this. It’s time we started acting like it.

Fresh Energy is committed to ambitious action to speed the transition to a clean energy economy. Will Kaul, our clean energy transmission consultant, has nearly four decades of professional energy experience and provided crucial leadership on CapX2020, a collaboration of 11 utilities that jointly planned and built a $2.1 billion, 800-mile expansion of the high voltage electric grid serving a large region in the Upper Midwest. We are proud of our work to secure that first round of infrastructure, but it’s not enough. Will, Fresh Energy, and our partners are now working to secure the new investments we need to drive innovation and unlock the full potential of wind and solar in Minnesota and the Midwest.

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