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The Decade Ahead: Energy, Transportation, and Climate Action

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The Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy (ISE) translates sustainable energy research into urgent action. The ISE is a university-wide center dedicated to developing energy systems...

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  • Jan 30, 2020

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2020-01 - Predictions & Trends, click here for more

Some decades make their mark more than others. As we cross the threshold of the 2020s, there's no doubt this decade will be a game-changer for our climate as the stakes grow catastrophically higher with each passing year.

If global warming is the ultimate disrupter, how will it fundamentally change our power and water utilities? Our transportation systems? Now that more people and institutions are paying attention, will we see transformative action?

Industry experts at the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy share their reflections and insights on these tough challenges.

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Electric Utilities: The Next Decade

How will electric utilities evolve in the decades to come? With electricity demand expected to grow 40-60% or more by 2050 in the U.S. and with utilities facing intensifying pressure to decarbonize, there is no doubt that utilities must adopt new generation sources and business practices, and regulation must change as well. But what are the most important factors? How will utilities react?

During this upcoming period, we can expect that utilities will eliminate all carbon emissions. The question is…how? It is clear that wind and solar will be dominant energy sources, but they are intermittent. We can expect a massive increase in all forms of electro-chemical storage–not merely lithium ion batteries, although these will continue to dominate for the next few years.

The tougher questions concern the terawatt-scale diversification or so-called flexibility resources, notably storage, needed for complete decarbonization. In the next decade, the growth in these resources will be a four-way battle between renewed hydroelectric resources of all types, gas plants with CCS, diversification with demand response, and diversification via transmission. We will probably see all of these grow significantly in the next decade, the most likely exceptions being transmission and hydro in the U.S. It is unlikely that any of these solutions will pull away from the pack before 2030.

Utilities and regulators will also slowly but steadily shift regulation to performance-based tariffs, shifting utility business models in the same direction. By 2030, utility pricing should be goal-driven, time- and demand-driven, and closely linked to products and services that control energy, improve comfort, and save carbon.

Peter Fox-Penner, Director, Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy and author of the forthcoming book, Power after Carbon, and Matthew Lillie, Questrom School of Business MBA Candidate, '21

Milestones: 2020, 2030, 2050, 2100…

It’s 2020. Simply the next decade in the calendar? No, not for me.

I started working in the climate space ten years ago. As I cut my teeth on the issues in that new chapter of my career, 2020 was a milestone in the fight to address climate change. Back then, the analysis focused on what sensitive scientific measurements indicated about the climate change trajectory we were probably on. When we absorbed the daily news, we considered whether an unusually long heatwave or an atypically intense drought possibly reflected a more fundamental shift in climate, but at that time experts were understandably cautious about to what extent the headlines reflected a “new normal.”

As we launch into the new decade, we’re all too conscious of the Australian and Californian wildfires representing a “new normal,” and of an impending Day Zero in Cape Town reflecting the fundamental link between climate change and water availability. We’re conscious that the accumulation of greenhouse gases is evident through regular events that are devastating to both nature and humans. It’s confounding that at a societal level, we are distracted from addressing this existential challenge.

Where can we find hope? Here’s the hope: 2019 saw many young (and not-so-young) people across the globe mobilize in response to Greta Thunberg’s leadership. Cities are setting goals to reduce their emissions. Financial institutions are examining their role in supporting the status quo and how they can drive change.

Many people are now paying attention. Let’s make this a decade of far-reaching change.

Jacqueline Ashmore, Executive Director, Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy

The Future of Efficient Transportation: A Pivotal Election Year

Public and private decisions made in 2020 and throughout the following decade will lead to profound changes in the way people and goods are moved and the ability of clean energy sources–primarily delivered in the form of electricity–to power these new systems. Cell phones have put powerful computers, communication devices, and position locators into the pockets and purses of most Americans, making it possible for Uber, Lyft, and other Transportation Network Companies to deliver on-demand and shared mobility services. Automated, connected vehicles, coupled with smart traffic control and tolling systems, add additional opportunities.

The systems that emerge will have a profound impact on the cost, convenience, safety, accessibility, and environmental impact of transportation. And they will redefine employment opportunities for the people that build and operate transportation equipment and highways and employment in the electricity sector—including its impact on the global climate.

The blunt fact is, however, that the pace of innovation, and the range of business models that can be built around these innovations, has grown at a rate that has outstripped our ability to clearly understand the choices that must be made or estimate the consequences of these choices.

Henry Kelly, Senior Fellow, Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.

Dr. Fox-Penner holds equity in Energy Impact Partners, a utility-backed energy investment and innovation firm, and consults for Energy Impact Partners and The Brattle Group on energy technologies. Dr. Fox-Penner also conducts research in areas of interest similar to the business interests of Energy Impact Partners and The Brattle Group. The terms of this arrangement have been reviewed by Boston University in accordance with its financial conflicts of interest in research policies.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 30, 2020

Utilities and regulators will also slowly but steadily shift regulation to performance-based tariffs, shifting utility business models in the same direction. By 2030, utility pricing should be goal-driven, time- and demand-driven, and closely linked to products and services that control energy, improve comfort, and save carbon

This is one I'll be looking out for, and one that I think would have been absurd to suggest just ten years ago. The relationship between customer and utility has truly shifted, and that shift is only beginning. 

Do you think there will be notable holdouts that resist this change, and if so how will they eventually be brought on board?

Great question, Matt. From our director, Peter Fox-Penner, who talked about electric utilities in this post: 

The relationship between utility and customer is certainly changing with rapid decarbonization. The attractive price of natural gas poses an issue. If the social cost of pollution from the cheapest fossil fuels does not warrant a switch to renewables, decarbonization goals will be delayed.

Also, it is likely that government incentives will need to favor not just renewable generation, but distributed generation on a scale much larger than we have ever seen. However, distributed generation will not be enough. Any unforeseen lack of private investment in new transmission, large-scale renewables, storage and demand response will keep us from hitting the targets most cost-effectively, or perhaps hitting them at all.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 24, 2020

Thanks, Jacquie. The sector is no doubt undergoing what of the most critical and difficult transformations in its history, but hopefully great minds like Peter and others will continue to help drive the momentum and provide shrewd insights!

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