Decarbonizing the Energy Mix is the End Goal

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A recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review highlighted some of the lessons learned from my recent travels in Germany studying energy policy.

I’d like to offer my thanks to the Trib’s David Conti for helping us to open the conversation around decarbonization of the electricity grid.

Lindsay Baxter
Lindsay Baxter

In the article I am quoted as saying, “Yes, we love renewables, and they’re unquestionably part of the solution. But I don’t think we want to put all of our eggs in investing too heavily in policies or programs that are fostering only renewable development.”

While I whole-heartedly agree with this statement, I think it deserves a little more context than what is allotted in the article’s 394 words.

As I’ve written in previous posts, one of the overarching themes of my time in Germany is the question “What is the goal?” If the goal of Germany’s energy policies is to grow renewable energy (which is one of several goals), then the energiewende has been quite successful to date. However, if the end goal is cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emission from energy use, the results have been mixed, and even renewable energy advocates admit that Germany’s example may not be the most cost-effective way to go about achieving GHG reductions.

In the U.S. and specifically in Pennsylvania, our end-goal needs to be deep decarbonization of our energy mix—and quickly. There is urgency to making this transition, as study after study shows that the global climate is already changing and predicted to increase with potentially catastrophic consequences if we don’t act soon.

There is research to indicate that while getting to 50 percent renewable energy in the United States is quite doable, achieving levels of 80 or 100 percent will be exceptionally challenging. For one thing, sourcing a significant portion of electricity specifically from renewable sources requires significant back-up capacity or energy storage for daily and seasonal lows in solar and wind production. While huge strides are being made in storage technologies, cost-effective seasonal storage (for several weeks of low renewable energy production) is not on the horizon. This redundant energy system also increases the costs.

Of course, there are respected researchers who have modeled that 100 percent renewable energy is achievable in the U.S. The most oft-cited is Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stanford University. While these studies are reason for great optimism for the future, what is the realistic timescale for achieving this vision?

An issue perhaps more important than cost in Germany is public acceptance of energy infrastructure. Whether new generating equipment like wind turbines, or new transmission lines to transport electricity, there is a strong “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) sentiment, even as public support of the energiewende remains high. These NIMBY issues lead to long public review and approval processes, increasing the time and money associated with developing these resources. And yet, time is of the essence.

So what does this mean for our work at PEC?

We will most certainly continue to work on issues related to growing clean and renewable energy, and all of its associated benefits, in Pennsylvania. However, we recognize the need for longer term planning on what the appropriate mix of renewable energy (including storage technologies), energy efficiency, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage for any fossil fuels still in use will be.  Yes, we need to continue to invest in programs and policies related to renewable energy and storage technologies, but we need to be realistic about the timescale for achieving a zero-emissions energy system.

Stay tuned for more on this important discussion.