Looking Before Leaping: The Debate over 100% Renewables

In early May 2017, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon introduced S.B. 100, the California Clean Energy Act of 2017, which seeks to put the state on a path to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2045. In a press conference supporting the bill, Sen. de Leon cited clean energy’s job creation and economy-boosting properties. Other California Senate leaders analogized this bill to the Kennedy Administration’s drive to place a man on the moon and said that California would continue to be the model for energy policy.

Intrigued by S.B. 100, I began to wonder about the economic and engineering research supporting this drive in California and elsewhere to accelerate already aggressive renewable targets. I was intrigued by an academic debate which came to the attention of some PACE partners and online followers in late June, and thought it useful to share it here and recommend that others in the energy policy space delve into the two papers described below.

On June 27 2017, twenty-one researchers released a report in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS). Assembled from institutions including NOAA, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and Columbia University, their purpose was to evaluate “a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100 percent wind, water and solar.” The “Group of 21” (my label for them) includes voices and institutions that have studied energy issues and contributed to studies finding paths forward to significant de-carbonization of the U.S. electric grid. So what led them to combine efforts and take on this topic?

The Group of 21’s report aims directly at a 2015 study, also published in the PNAS, and explains why it failed to make the case that a 100 percent renewable future is assured by 2050. The 2017 report concluded that “[p]olicy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that [rely] almost exclusively on wind, solar and hydroelectric power.”

In November 2015, four researchers from Stanford and Berkeley published a study in the PNAS intended to show that the “greatest concern” expressed by the traditional utility sector of load loss due to renewable energy variability could be overcome by “low-cost, no-load-loss, non-unique solutions.” They provided an overview of models and technology they believed could propel the entire American economy (electricity, transport, heating/cooling, and industry) to a future, estimated as approximately years 2050 – 2055, where “no natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or stationary batteries are needed.”

How would we achieve the “100 percent vision” (also my term)? The 2015 paper makes some key assumptions, including that:

  • geothermal storage is nearly universally available, to the extent that “all building air and water heating is “coupled with storage using underground thermal energy storage”
  • 85 percent of the transportation load and 70 percent of the loads for industrial high temperature, chemical and electrical processes are flexible or produced from hydrogen.

The Group of 21 agreed with the premise that it’s “theoretically possible to build a reliable energy system excluding all bioenergy, nuclear energy, and fossil fuel sources … [g]iven unlimited resources to build variable energy production facilities, while expanding the transmission grid and accompanying energy storage capacity enormously.”

The Group of 21 then laid out a series of statements in response to the 100 percent vision as expressed by the 2015 study:

  • “includes a wide range of currently un-costed innovations” such as “widespread use of hydrogen to fuel airplanes, rail, shipping, and most energy-intensive industrial processes”
  • “assumes the availability of multi-week energy storage systems that are not yet proven at scale” and
  • “deploys them at a capacity twice that of the entire U.S. generating and storage capacity today”
  • relies “heavily on … hydroelectric capacity expansion … at current reservoirs without consideration of hydrological constraints or the need for additional supporting infrastructure”

Both studies contain additional information and citations and I encourage you to make your own assessments. While an academic debate of this nature might seem far-removed from policymaking circles, it is it. There are important lessons here that can help inform policymakers on substance and process. When we leap forward without looking closely and asking tough questions, or let banner slogans stand in for rigorous analysis, consumers and industries get left behind and progress actually slows down.

We can and should point toward an energy future, but we are all responsible for doing so in a manner that accepts the realities of technology, economics, and politics and unfolds based on sound science and due diligence. This hard work often isn’t exciting enough to support a press conference, but it’s exactly what’s needed to assure affordable, reliable power in 2017 on to 2045 and beyond.


Congress ‘Back in the Saddle Again’ on Energy Bills

Last week, ahead of district work periods for both the House and Senate over 4^th of July, two key committees pushed forward on energy legislation, reviving chatter that we might, just might, see a significant energy bill come together this year. It has now been nearly 10 years since enactment of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, and 12 since the landmark Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 was signed into law.

Consider all the changes (abundant domestic natural gas, electric vehicles, utility-scale solar) in the national energy conversation over the past decade. And, reflect for a moment on the steady hands, on both sides of the aisle, leading the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Energy & Commerce Committee. It’s a good time for Congress to show leadership, debate the issues, and set some policy direction that will help consumers get access to more clean, affordable energy in the coming years.

There are only 3 “legislative weeks” remaining before the start of the August work period for both chambers. With other high priority, campaign-promise level issues (tax reform, health care, … to name a few) it seems unlikely that a major energy package can come together before Labor Day. But it’s appropriate to commend the leadership of these key Committees for getting back in the saddle again on critical energy issues.

So, what topics and issues are in the herd on this long drive?

On June 29, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) released text for S. 1460, otherwise known as the “Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017.” It’s largely based on S. 2012, the comprehensive energy package Sens. Murkowski and Cantwell created and shepherded through a long process last year with ups (85-12 bipartisan approval vote on the Senate floor) and downs (failed conference committee with the House). Among many provisions, the new bill seeks to boost hydropower as a renewable resource, to improve federal and state coordination on oil, and natural gas production, and promotes more energy innovation research on topics as diverse as microgrids, nuclear technology and energy storage.

It’s not yet clear whether the new Senate bill solves the issues that bogged down last fall’s conference committee. Natural resources and cybersecurity were often cited as stumbling blocks, although some point to politics and a desire by some in late December to wait and see what the Trump administration might bring to the table. But Leader McConnell has given the bill a procedural nod by adding it to the floor calendar. Note to those outside the beltway – this isn’t a firm commitment for a day and time, but a helpful gesture all the same.

While the House doesn’t yet have a formal energy package, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a lengthy (a colleague called it “old school”) markup on June 28 of several bills. Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) noted that the committee has “been quietly working on legislation that truly makes a difference for folks across the country” and has “examined barriers to modernizing the nation’s energy infrastructure and looked at opportunities to modernize our environmental laws with an eye on what’s doing best for consumers, the environment, and businesses across the country.”

Some key issues covered in the markup include: reauthorization of the Brownfields program, modernized siting and permitting for natural gas pipelines and hydropower facilities, and increased state flexibility for implementing air standards.

Over the summer, PACE will watch closely to see how each chamber advances its priorities and if the House and Senate energy leaders, and their senior staff, can come to agreement. And in this space, we’ll analyze elements of the pending legislation we think are most beneficial for consumers and invite guest commenters to share views.

So, please saddle up with us and ride along for this important national energy debate. And over August recess, if you encounter one of your federal lawmakers, thank them for tackling these issues and remind them that voters all over the country count on strong, smart policies to deliver clean, affordable power.


Energy and Freedom

Happy 4th of July from just outside our nation’s capital! And, welcome to my inaugural blog for the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy. It’s a great honor to continue PACE’s tradition of open, inclusive dialogue about energy policy. Over the coming years, I hope the words and images that appear in this space will spark even more questions, comments, and ideas that PACE can share with a wide universe of energy stakeholders and policymakers.

Energy and freedom go together like the 4th of July and fireworks. It seemed like a fantastic first blog theme as I sat with my laptop beside the pool at my daughter’s 4th of July early morning swim meet, grateful for the energy that comes from caffeine.

Initially, when I googled the terms and saw how many hundreds of websites, advocacy organizations, industry spokespeople and cultural institutions (even the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a creative spring campaign based on energy and freedom) have opined over the years on the links between energy and freedom, I thought twice about writing on the connection between energy and freedom. In the end, I decided it was critical to make a few observations and, as it were, to plant a few flags on the subject.

  • Our nation’s energy infrastructure and the rich history of its development are a source of national pride. Americans worked together for decades on the technology, business structures, and policies that allow electricity and fuels to flow freely to almost every corner of our large and diverse country.
  • America’s leadership in the world depends on a strong, stable energy economy at home.  Today’s international crises sometimes seem insurmountable, but it’s heartening to reflect back on this 4th of July at the enormous energy Americans have contributed to pushing back on totalitarianism across the past century. Energy helped create the fighting forces, the educated diplomats, and the inspired peacekeepers that have gotten the world farther away from encroaching darkness time and time again.
  • Low, stable energy prices and consistent delivery of energy help liberate American consumers and businesses from worry. Major employers, the U.S government, individuals, and everyone in between benefit when energy costs absorb less precious revenue, and there’s a comfort that unexplained price hikes aren’t just around the corner. In a state of less worry about energy costs, consumers and businesses are more likely to seek out and embrace innovation in their energy mix.
  • American innovation can help continue our nation’s energy success story and secure its advantages for even more of our citizens. And, as innovation sparks changes in energy infrastructure and policy, the American traditions of public debate, rhetoric, and civil decision-making will help our country come to the right decisions.

For further inspiration, I’d like to share two quotes from American icons that are in keeping with PACE’s tradition of engagement. One is a statement of hope, while the other strikes a cautionary note. PACE’s goal has always been to encourage persistence in meeting the needs of America’s energy future and to urge policy makers to tackle energy policy challenges head on. Talking about our challenges and the solutions, instead of talking around them, has been a hallmark of PACE’s advocacy from Day One.

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” – Henry Ford

Happy 4th of July!  Amid the food, fireworks and fun, please take a minute to appreciate the men and women who help make our celebrations possible and enjoyable for all, from our military, to local government officials, and energy workers out in the field.  After the holiday, come back often to PACE on this website, Twitter, and Facebook to continue a great American discussion of how we can all work together to maintain and grow our nation’s energy and freedom.