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How to Speed up the Clean Energy Transition

Posted by on May 30, 2020 in Climate Change, Eco-Friendly, Environment with 0 Comments

Meadow Lake wind farm in Indiana. Anthony / CC BY-ND 2.0

Tara Lohan | The Revelator

The first official tallies are in: Coronavirus-related shutdowns helped slash daily global emissions of carbon dioxide by 14 percent in April. But the drop won't last, and experts estimate that annual emissions of the greenhouse gas are likely to fall only about 7 percent this year.


After that, unless we make substantial changes to global economies, it will be back to business as usual — and a path that leads directly to runaway climate change. If we want to reverse course, say the world's leading scientists, we have about a decade to right the ship.

That's because we've squandered a lot of time. “The 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s were lost decades for preventing global climate disaster,” political scientist Leah Stokes writes in her new book Short Circuiting Policywhich looks at the history of clean energy policy in the U.S.

But we don't all bear equal responsibility for the tragic delay.

“Some actors in society have more power than others to shape how our economy is fueled,” writes Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We are not all equally to blame.”

Short Circuiting Policy focuses on the role of one particularly bad actor: electric utilities. Their history of obstructing a clean-energy transition in the U.S. has been largely overlooked, with most of the finger-pointing aimed at fossil fuel companies (and for good reason).

We spoke with Stokes about this history of delay and denial from the utility industry, how to accelerate the speed and scale of clean-energy growth, and whether we can get past the polarizing rhetoric and politics around clean energy.

What lessons can we learn from your research to guide us right now, in what seems like a really critical time in the fight to halt climate change?

What a lot of people don't understand is that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we actually have to reduce emissions by around 7-8 percent every single year from now until 2030, which is what the emissions drop is likely to be this year because of the COVID-19 crisis.

So think about what it took to reduce emissions by that much and think about how we have to do that every single year.

It doesn't mean that it's going to be some big sacrifice, but it does mean that we need government policy, particularly at the federal level, because state policy can only go so far. We've been living off state policy for more than three decades now and we need our federal government to act.

Where are we now, in terms of our progress on renewable energy and how far we need to go?

A lot of people think renewable energy is growing “so fast” and it's “so amazing.” But first of all, during the coronavirus pandemic, the renewable energy industry is actually doing very poorly. It's losing a lot of jobs. And secondly, we were not moving fast enough even before the coronavirus crisis, because renewable energy in the best year grew by only 1.3 percent.

Right now we're at around 36-37 percent clean energy. That includes nuclear, hydropower and new renewables like wind, solar and geothermal. But hydropower and nuclear aren't growing. Nuclear supplies about 20 percent of the grid and hydro about 5 percent depending on the year. And then the rest is renewable. So we're at about 10 percent renewables, and in the best year, we're only adding 1 percent to that.

Generally, we need to be moving about eight times faster than we've been moving in our best years. (To visualize this idea, I came up with the narwhal curve.)

How do we overcome these fundamental issues of speed and scale?

We need actual government policy that supports it. We have never had a clean electricity standard or renewable portfolio standard at the federal level. That's the main law that I write all about at the state level. Where those policies are in place, a lot of progress has been made — places like California and even, to a limited extent, Texas.

We need our federal government to be focusing on this crisis. Even the really small, piecemeal clean-energy policies we have at the federal level are going away. In December Congress didn't extend the investment tax credit and the production tax credit, just like they didn't extend or improve the electric vehicle tax credit.

And now during the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of the money going toward the energy sector in the CARES Act is going toward propping up dying fossil fuel companies and not toward supporting the renewable energy industry.

So we are moving in the wrong direction.

Clean energy hasn’t always been such a partisan issue. Why did it become so polarizing?

What I argue in my book, with evidence, is that electric utilities and fossil fuel companies have been intentionally driving polarization. And they've done this in part by running challengers in primary elections against Republicans who don't agree with them.

 

 

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