It’s a race against time: To combat the climate crisis, decarbonizing electricity is essential — but how? What will it take to clean up the power grid quickly and effectively?
As U.S. legislators continued to debate the Build Back Better infrastructure plan, which aims to make electricity carbon-free by 2035, climate change leaders convened on Sept. 30 to discuss solutions at the EmTech MIT conference hosted by MIT Technology Review.
The panel, “Cleaning up the Power Sector,” was moderated by Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, a think tank.
Scientists believe that achieving net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 is crucial.
“This is what physicists tell us is necessary to prevent — not global warming; it’s too late for that — but global warming at a scale that will cut civilization off at the knees,” said longtime climate activist and author Bill McKibben, a distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.
Clean electricity is a solution, panelists said.
“Seventy-five percent of our carbon problem right now can be solved through clean electricity and electrification,” said Leah Stokes, co-host of the “Matter of Degrees” podcast and an associate professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. “We can use clean electricity to power our homes, our cars, even about half of heavy industry.”
“It’s pretty much a miracle that we’re now at a place where the cheapest way to produce power on planet Earth is to point a sheet of glass at the sun,” McKibben agreed.
Yet despite the rise of solar and wind power and the transition away from coal-fired power and natural gas, we’re not moving fast enough.
“Thanks to policy investments over the last decade, we have a toolset available of mature technologies that [are] cheap and ready to scale, including wind and solar power,” said Jesse Jenkins, a macro-scale energy systems engineer and assistant professor at Princeton University. “But we need to be smashing records for the deployment of these energy technologies every year for the rest of our lives.”
How to hit that goal? Panelists identified a way forward — one built on technology and policy and powered by human resolve.
The willpower to divest fully …
Solar and wind power have become cost-effective for a reason: advocacy. Panelists noted that the cost of wind has dropped by approximately two-thirds and the cost of solar power and lithium-ion batteries has fallen as well over the past decade.
“That’s not an accident. That was due to public policy — and that public policy was due to pressure from activists and from advocates, and from public interest groups,” said Jenkins.
That advocacy and involvement will have to scale up massively to reach the 2050 goal, particularly in regards to phasing out the use of fossil fuels.
“Even with [clean] technology available, the hardest thing that humans have ever done, acting with enormous unity, is at every turn [to] keep trying to break the vested interest of the fossil fuel industry and utilities,” McKibben said.
This requires sustained grassroots efforts, such as the anti-fossil-fuel organization 350.org, which McKibben cofounded in 2008.
McKibben cited in particular “the young people around the world rallying around figures like Greta Thunberg,” and said it’s time for high-profile groups to follow suit and publicly renounce fossil fuels — including institutes of higher learning.
“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is looking a little naked in this regard. Its neighbor Harvard, and its neighbor across the bridge Boston University, have now divested. … It’s time for MIT to pay attention to the physics department and stop trying to profit off climate change, too,” McKibben said.
Stokes called for a “paradigm shift” away from the idea that efficiency can sufficiently mitigate the effects of burning fossil fuels.
“For a long time, we thought if you get a Prius, that's good enough. If you get a high-efficiency gas furnace, that's good enough. And what we know now is that it's not good enough,” Stokes said. “We have to stop using fossil fuels, and we have to stop building any new fossil fuel infrastructure of any variety.”
… and to build furiously
Achieving net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 is about more than stopping fossil fuels; it requires formidable innovation — and infrastructure — to replace it.
On the technology side, that includes the development of improved hydrogen production, ways to produce steel without emissions, and negative-emissions technologies such as bioenergy, Jenkins said.
On the policy side, advocates and policymakers need the fortitude to commit not just to fossil fuel divestiture, but to building new infrastructure.
“We have to shift this whole country into a mode of infrastructure-building that we haven’t seen in my life,” said Jenkins, who said the U.S. is living off of the fruits of the 20th-century investments in highways, cities, and power systems “that really petered out in the 1970s.”
“That has to fundamentally change if we’re going to build a net-zero emissions economy,” Jenkins said, which requires building wind and solar at more than twice the average pace over the next decade and doubling (or tripling) the total amount of transmission capacity in the country to support electrification over the next 30 years.
“It’s a challenge for environmental activists and others who are organizing. We’re very good at stopping things. Now we have to figure out how to accelerate and support the growth of substantial amounts of infrastructure,” Jenkins said.
New projects of this enormity require stakeholder buy-in on a regional scale.
“If we just go project by project, and we leave it to a private company to navigate where the wind project goes or where the transmission line goes, it’s all too easy for them to fumble that,” Jenkins said. “And it’s all too easy for well-intentioned people to say ‘no’ to that project without understanding that we have to say ‘yes’ to something, somewhere.”
Stokes said, “We need businesses right now to be calling up their congressmen, calling up their senators and saying, ‘We want you to actually do this. We want you to act on climate change and act on investing in American families.’”
Policy is key
Stokes visualizes progress along what she calls a “narwhal curve” to track clean energy deployment.
“We need to be getting upward of four or five percentage points if we want to get to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which is what President Biden campaigned on and won on and is trying to legislate on currently,” she said.
McKibben called Biden’s agenda the “first serious climate legislation” to arrive on the Hill.
A key component, currently held up by opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, is the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a proposed government incentive for utilities to receive grants if they deploy clean power at the necessary pace and scale, without a burden on consumers.
“That’s really important, because it means that everyday customers who are paying their electricity bills are not going to carry the costs of this transition — the federal government is going to help make electricity bills cheaper while doing this clean energy deployment,” Stokes said.
On the flip side, utilities that don’t move quickly enough would pay a penalty. “It’s not about making bad, dirty stuff more expensive — it’s about making cheap, good, clean stuff cheaper,” Stokes said.
“If you look at the bill in Congress right now, it is our best opportunity to dramatically accelerate that feedback cycle … by primarily investing in the growth of clean energy technologies and driving and accelerating trends that really are already underway,” Jenkins said.
These include investing in electric vehicles, including rebates and tax credits for consumers, as well as investment in electric vehicle manufacturing and carbon capture technologies.
The legislative process is fraught, due to the deeply held sway of the fossil fuel industry — “one of the most powerful and wealthy industries in the history of humanity,” NoiseCat said.
But change is still possible, even in the face of political headwinds, McKibben said, noting that 70% of Americans want action on climate. “We’ve shifted the zeitgeist,” he said.