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It Will Take More than Legislation to Achieve Net-Zero Energy

Posted to EPRI in the The Energy Collective Group
Neil Wilmshurst's picture
Senior Vice President, Energy System Resources, EPRI

Neil Wilmshurst is Senior Vice President of Energy System Resources for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He has overall management and technical responsibility for the research and...

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  • Oct 28, 2021
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The infrastructure structure bill awaiting action in the U.S. House has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions. But it will take much more than legislation to transition to a net-zero energy future.

Government incentives are a start – and advancements in technology can take it further. But achieving decarbonization goals is a complex task that cannot be solved solely by major changes in policy, money and technology. Real, sustainable climate solutions will also require new logistical capabilities. In particular, new clean-energy supply chains, new and differently skilled workers, and regulatory and operational systems that can foster, commercialize and successfully operate the innovations in this race to a net-zero economy.

Numerous modeling studies offer an encouraging perspective on potential clean energy solutions on paper, but they fall short of understanding what it will take to make them work in the real world.  The U.S. is a long way from completing its net-zero journey, and meeting bold goals means addressing pressing constraints, such as logistics, now.

We can see the impacts of supply chain disruptions rippling through the global automotive sector because of the computer chip shortage. And they are not alone. A quick scan of the technology, commodities and critical infrastructure sectors uncovers similar weaknesses. Electric utilities have been raising alarms about securing skilled labor for their operations for more than a decade. A global shortage of 85 million skilled workers by 2030 is heading our way. Can we deal with a problem of this magnitude in the same way we saw new regulatory and business frameworks streamlined in the record-breaking development of a Covid-19 vaccine? 

Enabling the clean energy transition will take a concerted effort on all fronts – new infrastructure, modernized supply chains, fit-for-purpose regulatory and operational systems, and many more skilled workers – to deploy clean energy technologies that are safe, reliable, environmentally sustainable and cost-effective. A holistic approach will help avoid unnecessary setbacks, stranded investments,  and missed opportunities to realize the full potential of clean energy solutions.

A successful path forward would address these three big logistical challenges:

  • Supply Chain.  Forward-thinking manufacturers, energy companies and supply chain organizations can head off potential supply chain problems with strategic collaboration. The entire energy ecosystem would benefit from more real-world data monitoring and sharing among operators and planners across the power system, and more robust modeling to better forecast supply needs and potential shortages.

  • Regulatory and Operational Frameworks. The power grid as we know it today was built upon a patchwork of small-scale energy generation systems that popped up across the country beginning in late 1800s. Until now, the pace of regulatory and market reforms has barely kept pace with technological change. But the transition to net zero will require a system built over 100 years to transform into a more flexible, decentralized network in one fifth of that time. Without accelerated processes to modernize codes and standards, current and future operations will be at risk. As we have seen far too often this year, some regions of our nation’s power infrastructure are already challenged to meet electricity demand. Each region offers unique, and sometimes fresh, opportunities to simultaneously address both regulatory and operational challenges. The consequences of being out of sync could be severe. Huge investment for the country is one thing, but a one-size approach does not fit all. Each region could benefit from end-to-end power system monitoring, modeling, coordination and control, supported by more flexible regulatory and operational frameworks to encourage innovation, reduce the cost of clean-energy technology and accelerate the energy transition.

  • Workforce. The unprecedented infrastructure transition requires unprecedented transformation across the workforce. Accelerated reskilling of existing workers and developing a large new workforce are fundamental to progress. New approaches using technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and computer-based, remote learning can support this workforce evolution. Programs that support vocational training and collaboration between employers and academic institutions can also help bridge the skills gap.

The transition to net-zero calls for more than legislation. It calls for new levels of cooperation and collaboration among a growing stakeholder network – government, industry, manufacturers, Wall Street, social justice organizations, and many other sectors of society. Together, we can seize this opportunity, make it real, and achieve our goal.

EPRI
Founded in 1972, EPRI is the world's preeminent independent, non-profit energy research and development organization, with offices around the world.
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 28, 2021

The transition to net-zero calls for more than legislation. It calls for new levels of cooperation and collaboration among a growing stakeholder network – government, industry, manufacturers, Wall Street, social justice organizations, and many other sectors of society. Together, we can seize this opportunity, make it real, and achieve our goal.

Well said-- and especially as we see headline after headline of gridlock I'm left wondering if we can find a way to do it without legislation, since that seems to be arguably the hardest part right now

Neil Wilmshurst's picture
Thank Neil for the Post!
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