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Power After Carbon: A Book Review

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Joel Stronberg's picture
President The JBS Group

Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney with over 40 years of experience in federal and state energy, environmental and sustainability issues. He is the founder and principal of The JBS...

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  • Oct 26, 2020

Power After Carbon: A Book Review

The debate between climate defenders and climate deniers has continued front and center throughout the 2020 election cycle. It contrasts with the pattern of previous years in which voter surveys suggested that climate change was near the top of voter concerns only to fade as election days drew near.

Should Joe Biden become president and the Democrats take both the House and Senate, the climate debate will dramatically change. No longer will federal policymakers spend much time debating and defending climate-science. They will instead exert their energies on answering the problem of what to do about it.

President Trump is right to accuse Biden of listening to scientists and not only when it comes to the novel coronavirus now plaguing the nation. The same charge may be leveled in the way Biden is likely to proceed on climate-related matters. The former vice president has time and again sought the help of scientists.

There is, however, another group of experts who Congress and the White House will need to work with as they draft and enact federal climate legislation to meet the goal of making the US a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050. A leading member of that group has written what will undoubtedly become required reading for energy and environment policy makers and activists everywhere.

Power after Carbon by Peter Fox-Penner offers a detailed yet eminently readable discussion of what it will take to get beyond the carbon economy. He asks: how does the power industry decarbonize while still meeting its key performance objectives of universally accessible and affordable, highly reliable and abundant, and secure from physical and cyberattacks?

Fox-Penner does not layout a straight-line that can be taken to decarbonize the economy. He offers something more valuable—guidance through the real-world policymaking maze and insights into the pitfalls and pratfalls that may conspire along the way.

As Alicia Barton writes, what Fox-Penner offers is a detailed look at the technology and policy challenges, we will need to confront on the way to a fully clean grid. Moreover, he recognizes that policies—especially of such scope—are not divined either in a vacuum or under controlled laboratory conditions.

Fox-Penner begins the way forward with a review of what has gone before. He is also careful to remind readers that the journey is not only about power generation. It must start with energy efficiency. Between energy efficiency and reaching the objective of zero net GHG emissions from the power sector at the needed pace, i.e., by 2050 or before, a lot can and needs to happen.

Decarbonization of national economies is complicated enough as a matter of technology and infrastructure. Overlay politics and the agendas of various organizations—from political parties to clean energy developers and floundering fossil fuel companies in search of bailouts—and what’s created is a morass of often conflicting pathways and objectives.

Consider the complexity of moving the US to a zero-net emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) by 2050 as the difference between a game of checkers and Raumschach chess. Fox-Penner helps the reader play the “power” game by detailing the pieces and discussing the various dimensional moves that policymakers, regulators, utility executives, and the other stakeholders must make to realize a net-zero economy.

Electrification is the common denominator. Power After Carbon takes the reader steps beyond the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), as well as the Obama administration’s US Mid-Century Strategy (US MCS).  Fox-Penner considers the challenge of decarbonization at a more molecular level than either the DDPP or the US MCS. He details price points, reliability, storage, geo-politics, job creation, carbon sequestration, grid size, and other issues within an integrated and actionable context.

Power After Carbon is all the more remarkable for its ability to speak to the issues in a manner accessible to a wide variety of readers. For example, I consider myself a clean-energy and climate generalist. Although I have a working knowledge of power generation and utility markets, my expertise is analyzing, writing, and advocating public policies. As a political actor, my job is to help create the will of voters and policymakers to move the nation onto a sustainable decarbonized pathway.  

Power After Carbon is an affirmation of an achievable low-carbon economy by one of the nation’s leading experts in the field. Fox-Penner clearly states there is enough technical and policy potential to eliminate long-term electricity growth for traditional uses. It’s a statement I know I can trust and around which sound public laws and regulations can be crafted.

These days, my tasks include advising another project beyond the boundaries of the DDPP and digs down to the details. The Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization (LPDD) project is a joint undertaking by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Widener University Commonwealth Law School’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center.

The LPDD project is based on the book, Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, edited by law professors Michael B. Gerrard[i] and John C. Dernbach.[ii] It offers policymakers and climate activists the details needed to put integrated energy and environmental laws and regulations in place.

My work on the LPDD project is to advise on outreach and characterize the politics surrounding decarbonization. Power After Carbon is proving to be a great companion.

Readers wanting additional information on Power After Carbon and the works of Peter Fox-Penner are encouraged to go to:

For a current list of the model legislation provided by the LPDD project and the works of Professors Gerrard and Dernbach, readers can go to LPDD.

For more commentaries by Joel B. Stronberg,  readers can click on my website Civil

[i] Michael B. Gerrard is the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School, where he teaches courses on environmental and energy law, and founded and directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

[ii] John C. Dernbach is the Commonwealth Professor of Environmental Law and Sustainability at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Director of its Environmental Law and Sustainability Center

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 26, 2020

"There is, however, another group of experts who Congress and the White House will need to work with as they draft and enact federal climate legislation to meet the goal of making the US a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050."

Joel, certainly there's nothing wrong with setting goals and working to achieve them. The phrase "net-zero", however, is a death sentence for the efficacy of any plan to reduce carbon emissions. It effectively kicks the carbon can down the road, to the distant year 20XX, when (in theory) we'll he sequestering an amount of carbon equivalent to what we're emitting.

But like a novice investor who has bought his house, his car, his boat, his jet ski etc. etc. on borrowed money, things won't work out well. We're headed for climate bankuptcy, and there's too much on the line to chalk it up as a learning experience.

Take for example carbon offsets, another incarnation of net-zero popular a few years ago. There were companies that promised to offset the carbon emitted by your European vacation by planting palm trees in Indonesia, or mahogany forests in Africa, etc., until several studies showed actual carbon reductions were an infinitesimal fraction of what was emitted. Or climate accords, or carbon trading schemes, both of which have never proven effective.

My first question to anyone advocating net-zero plans is whether there's a state, or a village, or even a home that has been proven to be truly net-zero - and there isn't. Shouldn't we create a net-zero community first, before setting national policy for a plan that might not even be possible?

Ask climate expert James Hansen at Columbia, or Kerry Emanuel at MIT: we need carbon reductions now. By pushing them off to 20XX, we're creating castles in the air, a false sense of security. Quite possibly, we're better off setting no goals at all.

Jason Price's picture
Jason Price on Jan 3, 2021

Over the holiday break, I read Power After Carbon and appreciate the book review by Joel Stronberg, whose insight I value more than my own on the subject and helped me appreciate the overall perspective of the author. Peter Fox-Penner comes from Energy Impact Partners, an impressive company managing key transformational investments by a consortium of investor-owned utilities. In sum, Mr. Fox-Penner is uniquely qualified to discuss key topics covered in the book. As Mr. Stronberg astutely notes, Parts I and II will likely serve as a useful guide for any student or policy advisor seeking deeper understanding and general context of our utility system. Part III gets into the meat of the matter and a continuation of ideas covered in Fox-Penner’s first book. I found this section most satisfying as it explored entirely new paradigms of the utility industry. While the concepts presented were not entirely new to me since I come from a non-utility industry background, I did find it refreshing to see an insider like Fox-Penner extrapolate on these ideas wearing an entrepreneurial hat. His thesis is summed up in Figures 9.2 and 9.3 where he asks the question of where on the customer-facing continuum will the future utility become. My take is this question by Fox-Penner is the crux of how he sees the industry will decarbonize. As an Energy Service Utility (ESU), one that is customer facing and resembles a retail business like ESCOs and yearns to become an Amazon, or a Smart Integrator (SI), an asset with third-party operators and integrators who are customer facing. Each scenario presents landmines and favor the ESU for its entrepreneurial no-risk no-reward approach. The SI model plays it safe for my tastes and reminds me of a REIT which owns the deed and contracts with a management company to operate the asset be it a hotel, an office park, a parking lot, or whatever best serves to maximize revenues. The owner gets a fixed fee for the rent plus an override in good times. I admire this book for the fact that the questions are being asked and that Fox-Penner is brave enough to answer them.

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