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Clean Energy Conundrum: The Ring of Round Numbers

image credit: ID 44087088 © Kianlin |

We all know at this point that we need as much clean energy and energy efficiency (both traditional and dynamic), as we can get - and get it as fast as we can. But how do we know that we are getting what we think we are and getting it on the timeline we expect?

Today we are living in the age of round number goals that have a nice ring to them. What I mean is that almost every week some Mayor, Governor, Utility or other actor is saying "By (fill in the date) we will achieve a (increase/decrease) in (clean energy/renewable energy/greenhouse gas emissions) compared to (fill in the date)".   

It is encouraging and uplifting to hear these commitments and goals being announced. But I have been around long enough that my antennae start to vibrate when everything seems to be a round number.

Goals are good. I have had a lot of them during my life. Some were vague, some specific. I have achieved some of them while not making it into the end zone on others - not yet anyway (:

But whether or not I achieved my goals was mainly a personal matter, or a matter that may have only affected my family. Whether or not I achieved the goals was not really something that impacted a lot of others, particularly in my state, country or society in general.

But the kind of goals being set on clean energy and climate are not like my goals, They are important in a very large context. If they are not met, then the impact is most likely to be significant for everyone.

I believe that there are important questions to consider. How are these goals being set? How does one know that things are on track for being met? What options are there to use as alternatives to goals? What is the best way to get certainty?

Let's take a look.....

Setting the Goal

Some goals are set based on things like technical potential, technology penetration, consumer desire, etc. Some goals are set in order to spur growth or movement in a certain direction (think sales goals in any commercial enterprise). I think of these as positive, incremental, additive goals. Most goals are like this it seems.

Then there are the goals that are set based on looking at a place out in the future that one doesn't want to get to or be in, and so the goal is set based on how to change the present situation or avoid a future situation. That is kind of what I was thinking when I decided one of my new year's resolutions would be to lose a little bit of weight. That would obviously be characterized as a type of reduction goal.

The Paris Accord is also an example of a reduction goal. It is based on the work of climate scientists determining a place we don't want to get to (threatening levels of global average temperatures). (I won't go into the fact that the goal levels of the Paris Accord have not even been set high enough to do the full job that scientists are prescribing).

So I am wondering - How are the many round number goals I am hearing and reading about actually being set?

Are we on the right track?

I can't think of a goal, although I am sure they exist, where you wait for a long period of time, with no feedback along the way. Then you get to a point in the future and see if you met the goal. That would be crazy right? If you set a destination, you need to plot a course but also check at certain points to see if you need to make course corrections. If you are trying to lose weight, you need to step on the scale once in a while.

But then there is also the variation on this theme where you only get feedback on one distinct goal and not on all the goals supposedly being met by multiple actors under the banner of a very large goal. Big goals are usually complex and multi-faceted, with a lot of different moving parts in how they are being pursued.

So I am wondering - how are the many round number goals I am hearing and reading about being tracked?

What if we don't make the goal?

Hmmm...this sounds like a very big question, doesn't it?

If I am trying to lose weight, and I don't lose the X pounds that I said I would lose by Y date, then it is disappointing, but otherwise a case of "no harm, no foul". I can do a restart and set a new goal for a new date.

In the case of clean energy and emissions goals, it does not seem like we have a case of where if the goal is not met, it is simply a matter of doing a restart. That is not how greenhouse gas emissions and climate change works. It seems we need to not only track progress as I said above, but perhaps do more than that - maybe we need do things to ensure goals are attained. There may need to be consequences for non-attainment, and for those consequences to be put in to play very quickly if things are not on track.

An example of this is when utilities are given goals, either by a state legislature or by a public utilities commission. If those goals are not met, the utility may be dinged in monetary terms. I know first-hand from my days as a utility exec that these type of goals are taken very seriously.

So I am wondering - Do the many round number goals I am hearing and reading about have any penalty clauses?

What about alternatives to goals?

As I mentioned above, you can certainly put some monetary consequences in place for not meeting goals. But that sounds like something that fits more with standards, not goals. Standards imply a level of something that must be met and if they are not met some kind of penalty is incurred. A well-known example of clean energy standards are portfolio standards used when a state prescribes a certain level of clean energy or renewable energy that must be achieved by a date certain.

Portfolio standards are big ones in scope. But there are smaller scope standards that when added up become very important. An example is fuel efficiency standards. Another one is building codes (which I wrote about a while ago in this blog post because I felt they were getting enough attention in clean energy efforts) 

So I am wondering.....are we focusing enough on standards as a way to help meet goals?

What About Voluntary Standards?

By voluntary standards I mean serious, quantitative standards that exist to be used on a voluntary basis, as opposed to mandatory standards. The best-known example of this is Energy Star. When a purchase is made of something with an Energy Star Label on it, there is some certainty as to what has happened. Another is Green Button, the program that companies can opt into which provides some certainty into how a customer's electricity data is handled and provided.

Here is another well-known one. In the past week, it is very likely that you have worked in, or walked in and out of a building that had a LEED certification (e.g. Silver, Gold, Platinum level). LEED is not a building code. It is voluntary submittal to a process that quantitatively evaluates a building against a number of criteria. Importantly, LEED is moving with the times, incorporating Demand Response and other Grid-interactive Efficient Building (GEB) components. LEED certification has become a visible signal to the public and business community of some kind of certainty.

The folks who provide the LEED program have also developed a certification program for grids, grid components, and power systems. Called PEER*, it is already being used for microgrids, utility distribution systems, etc. and like its cousin LEED offers a means of certainty (with similar color-coded levels of achievement) as to whether a kind of standard or goal in the power sector is being met.

So I am wondering - is enough support being given to the voluntary standards sector to allow it to play a big role in clean energy goal attainment?

The Upshot

As you may have guessed by now, this blog post has been brought to you by the Letter C. But the most significant word above that starts with C may not be Clean or Climate. It is probably "Certainty". Some goals and commitments are of the kind that it is not a big deal if they are not met. But in the case of clean energy and climate goals and commitments, that's not the case. We are talking about a very, very big deal if they are not met.

We need to not only make announcements, but we need to look at how to build in as much certainty to the achievement of those things being announced. Because It seems like a situation where there won't be any do-overs, doesn't it?

Anyway, I need to stop there. I should go step on the scales and see if I lost any weight writing this blog post. (:



Dan Delurey's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 11, 2019 11:21 am GMT

I love this post, Dan-- thanks so much. It's definitely something that's hit my ears, too. As much as I'm supportive of politicians who bring clean energy goals to their platforms, there's definitely a question of why is the 2030 goal 40% rather than 37.5% or 41.2%? Presumably the round numbers aren't the exact number data came out to, so are they overshooting what's possible or building in a buffer by underselling what's possible? Or is it giving too much credit to assume that line of thinking has been undertaken? Really some good thought-provoking questions!

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