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Five Questions on Energy & Climate for 2021

Institute for Sustainable Energy's picture
Research, Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy

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...

  • Member since 2019
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  • Feb 16, 2021

You asked, we answered. ISE experts pick up where we left off in our conversation on energy and climate policy under the new Administration and Congress with U.S. Representative Sean Casten. Although we ran out of time to respond to everyone, our leadership and senior fellows have weighed in with their expertise on five of your pressing questions about WW2-style mobilization around climate action, EU clean energy initiatives vs. the U.S., building a national clean energy grid, and battery storage initiatives. If you missed it, our webinar and Q&A are available on-demand.

I think it is fair to say this new Administration has put forward the best climate plan thus far. But climate degradation and ecological degradation are exponential and not linear, and we are on the precipice of the point of no return. Given that, how would you respond to the statement that benchmarks like 2050, 2035, or even 2030 are too far away and may not be capable of staving off human extinction? And that what is required is a WW2-style mobilization of nearly our entire society immediately?

Yes, you’re absolutely right: we’re in an emergency situation that requires an all-in response as fast as possible, in every aspect of modern life. If you’re an individual, you might begin eating less meat, or opt in to renewables from your utility. But we all know that individual actions aren’t going to solve this crisis. In order to reach zero emissions, we need massive overhauls in every sector of our modern global economy.

Fortunately, many large organizations understand the need to operate on a very aggressive timeline. But in a corporate context, even an aggressive timeline involves months, years, and decades of targets and goals, especially when you’re dealing with complex new technologies and manufacturing operations that are transitioning or winding down.

Giant corporations like GM, Microsoft, Google, Walmart, Amazon, and hundreds of others are well into these processes. Why? Because they know what’s coming. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote in January in his now-famous annual letter that "We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance." So our financial leaders and politicians understand your precipice analogy as well.

Can they do more? Can they move faster? Yes, always. But consider what needs to happen. General Motors has decided to move away from the internal combustion engine business, their CEO announced recently. GM plans to sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035. Today, fewer than 2% of new cars are electric. New factories need to be constructed, supply chain components must be revised, emerging technologies such as battery storage need to be funded. Charging infrastructure must be built everywhere, transmission lines and distribution sites created.

What can make all of this go faster? The human component is key. We need policies that align with the clean-energy transition, and you’re right, the new Administration has a comprehensive plan for that. But we also need leadership, from the CEO on down. Smart CEOs spend time assuring their workforces are engaged: peak productivity and innovation come from people who understand what they’re doing and why it’s important, who are properly supported and incentivized. The importance of employee engagement cannot be overstated. Depending on the business they’re in, leaders respond to pressures from other stakeholders as well: investors, customers, prospective hires, community members.

Policymakers, investors, and the public can always do more to support these commitments and push them harder. But we have to remember how these behemoth corporations operate, which is by making decisions and implementing strategies against setting quarterly, annual, and decadal goals, and by tying compensation to these targets. This is happening.

Is it happening fast enough to avoid the very worst impacts of climate change that our top scientists have explained so well? Nobody has the answer to that question. But in 2021 we have reason to be more hopeful. We have new leadership in the United States, which is critical for global accomplishment. We have the brutal and continuing experience of another global emergency to guide our actions; perhaps we didn’t really understand what a global emergency was until COVID-19.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that public sentiment is everything. "With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." Fortunately, the American public gets it: the latest Yale research finds that Americans who think global warming is happening outnumber those who think it is not by 5 to 1. The denier camp is dwindling; the facts are all around us, and increasingly impossible to ignore.

What do you think some of the countries in the EU are doing on the topic of clean energy that we are not in the U.S.? And are there legislative differences between us and them that may prevent us from achieving what Switzerland, for example, has in emissions?

To take Switzerland first, as a special case, the Swiss have many advantages. Of the 30 wealthiest nations, Switzerland ranks 27th in the fraction of total primary energy derived from fossil fuels, instead relying heavily on nuclear energy, hydroelectric power, and wood from its abundant forests. Its main industries are not particularly carbon-intensive: pharmaceuticals, banking, tourism, and, of course, clocks. So it is unlikely the United States will ever match Switzerland in terms of carbon intensity by any measure.

With respect to size and diversity of economic activity, the United States is more fairly compared to the European Union. Historically, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of economic activity has been lower in the EU than in the U.S., with both regions improving over time on parallel tracks. The EU’s roadmap for future development, the European Green Deal, has the goal of making the continent climate neutral by 2050. Last year, when the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) presented this ambitious plan to lawmakers, the European Parliament asked for an accelerated timetable.

While President Biden has identified climate change mitigation as a primary goal of his administration, it is unlikely any plan comparable to the European Green Deal will be enacted by Congress. A realistic goal for the next four years is to restore Obama-era regulatory initiatives, such as automobile fuel economy standards and power plant emission reductions. While these goals sound modest, changing federal regulations is a slow process, and the Biden administration will be facing skeptical federal judges, 28% of whom have been appointed by President Trump. Therefore even modest progress will require considerable effort.

In the long run, it will be voters, not politicians, who will determine the speed and vigor with which nations address the challenges of climate change. In the US in the 1970s there was widespread agreement that air and water pollution were serious problems. Environmental protection became a bipartisan project, with support across the political spectrum. The effects of climate change are more subtle than those of smog, acid rain, or rivers on fire. It remains to be seen when and whether Americans will take the climate challenge seriously.

There's a growing recognition by FERC, the Executive Branch, and Congress that inter-regional transmission infrastructure is needed to achieve our clean energy and carbon reduction goals by connecting renewable energy to market. Are you supportive of a new transmission investment tax credit to support building a national clean energy grid?

While many recent studies have concluded that expanding the inter-regional transmission infrastructure will lower the total cost of supplying clean energy to U.S. consumers, many institutional barriers prevent the actual planning and development of such inter-regional transmission. These barriers include the lack of clean-energy policies that are broadly shared across states, balkanized transmission planning, the lack of agreed-upon cost recovery, and state-by-state permitting processes that make it challenging to permit multi-state transmission lines (e.g. Improving Transmission Planning: Benefits, Risks, and Cost Allocation and Coalition Calls on FERC to Strengthen Regional and Interregional Transmission Planning). A transmission investment tax credit for building a national clean energy grid would help to reduce the cost-recovery barrier but, by itself, would not be sufficient to facilitate the development of inter-regional transmission infrastructure.

Regarding construction, I'm aware of one or two transmission-line projects that have spun out of federal labs that involve the use of high-temperature superconducting and cryogenics for long-distance transmission (national/international grid feasible). Would infrastructure spending be at all pointed at starting to build out a national grid utilizing tech like this, or is the tech still too immature?

High-temperature superconducting transmission line technology is still too immature and costly for broad-based, large-scale grid applications. However, the market size for this technology is expected to grow, and start-up companies, such as VEIR, are trying to commercialize the technology with innovative cooling systems and by focusing on long-distance overhead transmission lines with a very narrow footprint.

To develop a national transmission grid, available mature technologies include both high-voltage alternate-current transmission lines and high-voltage direct-current transmission technologies. The latter HVDC technology is being deployed for long-distance transmission in China, for submarine transmission lines between Scandinavia, the U.K., Ireland, and continental Europe, and the conceptual design of a U.S. “macro grid.”

In addition, many other advanced transmission technologies that can increase both the capability of the existing grid and the capacity of new transmission investments have reached commercial-scale deployment and are slowly adopted by the industry.

I would like to understand the specifics of initiatives regarding battery storage, also from the incentives perspective. Also, any focus on different storage means (e.g. hydrogen storage)?

Battery storage is an active and important area of research across academia, industry, and national laboratories in the U.S. While Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries are ubiquitous in electronic devices and electric vehicles, the inherent energy density available in Li-ion batteries will not be able to meet future energy storage needs. Research is looking at high-energy-density batteries, such as metal-air battery systems, and alternative energy storage approaches to meet future demand.

Research initiatives around battery storage are funded through federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation, and industry, such as the Samsung Global Research Outreach and LG Chem Global Innovation Challenge. Each program and agency has different priorities, with industry often focused on specific technologies related to their business, and federal agencies focused on their own missions. At the DOE many initiatives focus on moving research into commercial products; while the NSF focuses on fundamental research on electrochemical devices but typically does not consider commercialization. Federal agencies fund energy storage research through open calls and focused initiatives such as the DOE’s new Energy Storage Grand Challenge, which aims to establish U.S. leadership in energy storage through focused research, aiding in the transition of technologies to commercialization and considering the manufacturing aspects of increased energy storage. Note that the DOE’s initiative is in energy storage, not battery storage. The DOE and other agencies are pursuing all types of storage including electrochemical (i.e. batteries), electromechanical, thermal, and flexible generation. Included in this is hydrogen storage with a particular focus on hydrogen generation and use via fuel cells. In addition to the conversion of hydrogen via fuel cells, research also considers the physical structures for hydrogen transport and storage, which present challenges due to the high pressures or low temperatures needed to effectively store hydrogen.

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

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