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Clean Energy Conundrum: Time, Timing, Timelines

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It is time to talk about time, timing and timelines - not those for emissions, temperature rise, sea level increase, etc. (at least not directly) but instead the time it takes to do things in the electricity sector that address or prevent those things. I want to chat with you about the timelines that get us from where we are to where we need to be.

In my work in the sector over the years, I have encountered and dealt with all sorts of things that can make a thing happen faster or slower than otherwise. Some of these are procedural, such as legislative calendars that have to be adhered to, with different constituencies and their champions competing for legislative time and attention. Some are technical, such as the time it takes to site, approve and build power plants and wires, before any renewable energy starts flowing anywhere. Some even can appear to be psychological, like the years-long reluctance of policymakers and stakeholders to adopt smart meters and time-based rates.

Before becoming involved in the policy arena I worked for a utility, and my job was to develop and manage energy efficiency programs. I had a chance to learn how long it can take from the standpoint of concept to the point where the first kWh is actually saved. That is not necessarily a short timeline, even when PUC mandates are involved that might seemingly speed things up.

On the policy front, I often use the example of smart meters. It was clear to me and my Coalition (DRSG) in 2003 that advanced metering technology was at a point where it could be deployed at utilities on a widespread basis. During that year, Congress was beginning to develop a large energy bill, so we persuaded folks on the Hill that it should include a provision that would jump-start smart meters. It required all State Public Utility Commissions, within 18 months after enactment, to conduct a proceeding to consider whether it should move forward on smart metering.

But 2003 was only the beginning. It was 2005 before the law (EPACT) was enacted. It was 2-3 years after that before Commissions completed their work. No federal or state money was made available to help transfer action from policy to deployment. A grant program (SGIP) made it into the 2007 Act (EISA), but it was only authorized, with no accompanying appropriation. Then in 2009 I got a call from the Hill asking if I could help them include some money in the Stimulus Act (ARRA) for GridMod projects. Suddenly there was $4+ Billion in funds available. But it still took until 2010 to actually create the SGIP program and start passing out funds. Installations didn't begin to happen until the subsequent years.

I am sure you get the point. It took a long time from the point that policymakers agreed to encourage smart meters before they were actually installed.

Let's now look at all of this from the standpoint of climate. In the past, the timelines for demand side measures and clean energy have been independent of climate ones.  

That was then. The situation is different now.

Scientists are now saying things like "we need to reduce emissions 7-8 percent a year starting in 2020 to achieve temperature increase targets. But emissions are actually increasing, let alone decreasing at that high rate. And energy efficiency progress dropped 18% from 2016 to 2018 according to a new Report issued this week.

The timelines for actions in the electricity sector that address climate change can no longer be thought of as independent of the climate timeline. Yet I have seen no evidence that we are overlaying the timeline for those actions on top of the timelines for emissions/temperature targets.

We need to synchronize things. And that means we need to adjust the electricity timeline and the actions associated with it. We need to accelerate.

So now you are saying to yourself: "Duh,.....I know we need to move faster on climate, Dan. You don't have to tell me that".

But I am talking about getting below that overall understanding and generalization of "faster". I am talking about looking at how different climate-friendly things get done in our sector and looking at how to accelerate the process and get those things done faster so that their "friendliness" is contributing that much earlier.

An example is building codes, which are only changed from time to time according to prescribed intervals. That means that if provisions are not put into building codes when they are up for modification, it could mean a years-long wait before the first kWh is actually wrung out of a building because of a new code. It also means thousands of buildings getting built to standards that are not designed for the lowest emissions possible. That is not a formula for addressing climate change. We need to find a way to change all building codes as soon as we can and keep changing them frequently as new options for emissions reductions become available.

Acceleration of all the good things we are doing (or say we will do) has to be a topic included in all energy and climate discussions and planning efforts. We have to talk openly about it at conferences and ad hoc sessions. But we have to get specific as to how we are going to do that, not just in the types of things to do, but in determining the fastest timeline on which they can be accomplished.

In the policy world, we have to avoid relying on past timelines and the time it took to get something out of committee, onto the floor, enacted and turned over to parties to implement. We need to use the timeline overlay in our efforts to advocate for that.

There is no better example of policy following a traditional timeline than the recently concluded COP in Madrid. As you have no doubt read, the meeting ended with little progress being made, especially on the all-important Article 6 which will govern emissions trading. The killer for me is that delegates and stakeholders alike, in assessing the meeting, talked about their hopes for further progress at the next COP in Glasgow. Next COP? That is a year from now! At this point, the COP ought to be a permanent, standing operation that meets week in and week out until it gets done what it needs to, and then continues meeting to improve upon what it has already done.

But before I close, I need to note that there is another factor. There are parties that do not consciously want acceleration. They are too invested in their present situation. There are also parties that are unconsciously not focusing on timelines because they are too busy with their own personal one, or that of the organization or company they work for.

It may not surprise you to learn that climate change is a topic that often comes up for discussion over dinner in the Delurey household. One night I asked my sons for their thoughts about climate-related timelines. My youngest said "The majority of companies and individuals know that climate change is happening and that actions to address it are not being taken. But they all think they are smart enough in their own approach to timing. They think they can play it right up to the brink, while making a little bit more money each year before they have to yield in practical ways to the inevitable. They think they can time a change on their part just right so as to maximize the benefit to them, and still satisfactorily address climate change."

We passed the business-as-usual scenario a long time ago. We cannot come up with free-form timelines for action in our sector as if there is no other relevant timeline.

We are not smart enough to outsmart the climate timeline.


How do we do it? There is not a general response to that question. The ways will depend on a variety of factors specific to programs, projects and policy proposed or enacted. I have some ideas but you are the one who can best determine the options for the area you work in.

No matter what role you play in the energy sector, it is time for you to think temporally more than you ever have in the past. It is time to see where acceleration is possible and move accordingly - both in the planning and development phase and the "doing" stage. At the very least we each ought to be developing a viable "Plan B" acceleration plan, with a more rapid timeline, that can be deployed as public support rises and government leadership inevitably has no choice but to act.

It is said that timing is everything. That has never been more true than now.



Dan Delurey's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 25, 2019 3:25 pm GMT

Dan, I think it's easy to make things more complicated than they need to be: to over-analyze, to synchronize, to incentivize. Then re-analyze again, and again.

I'm more convinced than ever a revenue-neutral carbon tax cuts to the heart of what we need to accomplish - one where individuals, companies, governments, all consumers of fossil fuel are taxed when they contribute more than their share of CO2 to the atmosphere, and rewarded when they contribute less. It works.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 26, 2019 12:53 pm GMT

Scientists are now saying things like "we need to reduce emissions 7-8 percent a year starting in 2020 to achieve temperature increase targets. But emissions are actually increasing, let alone decreasing at that high rate. And energy efficiency progress dropped 18% from 2016 to 2018 according to a new Report issued this week

Well said, Dan-- most of us agree that action is needed soon on emissions, but the elephant in the room is often the long lead time between idea and implementation and then implementation and impact. The runway of time we have is definitely running out-- which is why the ultimate resolution may need to involve some carbon negative technology at this point.

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