What I Should Have Written About
- Sep 13, 2021 1:43 pm GMT
Wow... A lot of things happened and a lot of issues popped up since my last post. Some of them are ones I have written about before and others are newly rolling around in my brain.
Here are some of the things I should have written about in the past months;
My hair turned grey fighting to avoid the stranding of the sunk investment of the New England-based electric utility I worked for a couple of decades ago. It was a brutal effort during the introduction of deregulation and retail choice. It largely revolved around new entities like Enron trying to persuade policymakers to reduce prices to customers by lowering them below what was needed to recover a utility’s fixed costs.
I now find myself once again talking about stranded investment when I am in climate change discussions. I talk about how hard the oil and natural gas industry will fight to avoid having their investments stranded by new policy that makes it uneconomical for them to operate them. I should have written about this issue more recently as it is important to understand it as we figure out how to make the transition to a zero-emissions energy system.
Sustainability v. Climate Change
I find that I have not used the term “sustainability” all that much in my work over the past 20 years. Not that it doesn’t show up from time-to-time, but “climate”, “climate change” and all of the derivatives ( like “climate friendly) are what predominate in the energy and energy-environmental community these days.
But as I have branched out this past year to talk more to those in other sectors and communities, including the general public, I have found myself in discussions that are all about sustainability as it has been classically defined. In these discussions I try to point out that not all types of sustainability are necessarily emergency issues or actions to address climate change, and therefore sustainability advocates should focus on mitigating climate change as a threshold for tackling many sustainability goals.
My new thought is this – Is the area of sustainability adjusting itself to the change that is already baked in? Won’t it have to do that or otherwise risk using planning parameters that are not valid anymore?
Adaptation Overtakes Resilience?
When I was putting on the National Summit on Smart Grid & Climate Change back in 2014, I designed it to have two breakout tracks – one on Mitigation and one on Resilience. Getting speakers for the Resilience track turned out to be challenging. It was such a new area that not that many people were really known to be able to talk about it with any expertise or experience. That of course has changed and is set to change even more in the wake of the extreme weather events of the past year.
I have written in the past about how resilience as a term is used two ways: some using it to mean preventing adverse impacts and some meaning bouncing back from impacts that have occurred.
But I should have written recently about the fact that this dichotomous meaning may be moot, because the realization is setting in that the term Adaptation may best match the situation we find ourselves in.
FERC is in the Limelight
There are numerous Agencies, Bureaus, etc. in Washington that can have enormous impact on American business and consumers yet are practically unknown to the general public. For decades, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been one of those.
Awareness of FERC has changed over the past year and will continue to rise in the future, and rightfully so given the immense and important role the agency has in things like pipeline and transmission siting, carbon pricing, and structure of wholesale markets. FERC is now understood by those opposed to projects as a place to protest to the consternation of those at 888 North Capitol Street. FERC is no longer unknown outside of the energy community.
EE is Not in the Limelight
Approximately 50 years ago Energy Efficiency (starting as Energy Conservation) was born, mainly as a response to the oil embargo and the high prices it spawned. For the next 40 years it was the pillar of policy and activity aimed at reducing prices and improving environmental quality. Starting about 15 years ago there were a lot of new options like demand response, DER, storage, electrification, etc. that had that same aim, with some even more finely targeted at mitigating climate change. While I know that EE is alive and well and and continues to prosper, I also feel like all those new things I mentioned became bright and shiny new objects that made EE look dull and old to many people. But I believe that EE still deserves its status as the “first fuel” and the pillar that underlies decarbonization. I should have written about that.
The Big Bang of Methane
I am not sure any of us thought as much about methane in years past as we do now. But we all probably know now know the potency and atmospheric duration of it. The thing I think is the significant development is that policymakers and practitioners are starting to incorporate it as a differentiator in reducing carbon concentrations. They are starting to talk about going after methane in the immediate and short run as a separate goal under a strategy of getting the bigger bang for the near-term buck.
This is reminding me of the way it has taken so long for it to be recognized that not all kWh are equal in cost or emissions, and that there is a higher value to saving some rather than others. I hope that the way methane is being talked about is the beginning of smarter and more precise decarbonization plans.
Rejoining Paris is a Blip
Rejoining the Paris Accord was a no-brainer and a sure bet with a new President. But I think it got overblown as a significant event, and in reality is nothing but a blip on the climate timeline. It belongs in the same category as making decarbonization commitments. But the act of signing something or promising something is not decarbonization in and of itself. I was not comforted when I saw that the Administration held back on things at the G-7 and G-20 meetings like funding the part of the Paris Agreement intended to provide funds to developing nations.
Sequestration Loses its Sheen
Long ago, one of the first issues I got involved with relative to climate change was offsets.The utility I worked for had (to its credit) stepped out and made a CO2 reduction pledge, part of which was to be met by forestry offsets. Sequestration was a hot topic as the early UN COPs began to take shape, and then became even hotter when corporations and other entities could find cheap offsets to buy instead of actually reducing their own emissions.
But now sequestration as offsets have been around long enough for them to be reviewed for their performance. The reviews are not good. A few months ago I hosted a Zoom Call on this topic that included some of the “Fathers” of Agricultural-based offsets who had helped craft and establish the sequestration genre. They are not the advocates they used to be. One is even all the way on the other side.
The role of forests and agricultural practices in carbon sequestration is a hot issue right now, particularly when it comes to proposals to pay farmers for doing it. It seems like we really need to be careful here lest we encourage something that does we want in the short term but comes back to bite us in the long one.
Natural Gas v. Fossil Gas
I must admit that I had never really thought about natural gas as being any kind of a label intended to appropriate the “natural is good” mantle for it. As far as I know, natural gas was a term long before the move to "naturalness" in food, fabric, materials, etc. became the behemoth trend it is.
But today, whether planned long ago or a case of accidental beneficial naming, the name natural gas has been increasingly seen as a case of greenwashing. The move to call it “fossil gas” is small but growing. I should have noted this over the past year and tossed out my opinion that I don’t like that latter name, but yet I agree that anything that positions gas as anything other than a carbon-laden fossil fuel should is not right either.
Ban the Bans?
I wrote in 2020 about how the veneer of natural gas was getting peeled back to reveal its membership in the fossil fuel clan. I wrote about how the bridge to the future as some called it had served some purpose in the transition from coal and oil, but that now it was time to move beyond gas. Apparently (naturally?) the gas industry had other views on the matter, and to say it has moved aggressively to protect its position is an understatement. As one who has designed public policy advocacy campaigns, I have to admire what they have accomplished so far – around 20 states have enacted a “Ban against bans”. That means that in those states, local governments are prohibited from enacting any local ordinance or rule that would ban gas hook-ups in new or substantially renovated buildings.
I think the fact that most of the built environment uses gas in some way is one of the sleeper stories of the need to decarbonize the energy system in the U.S. I have written about this and will do so again.
Texas Goes Small in One Sense
In line with its reputation, Texas has generated some “big” energy stories over the past year. But I think a very interesting aspect of Texas government and policymaking has not gotten enough notice in all the media focus on the State.
Don’t you find it strange that one of the largest states (geographically and by population) has a part-time legislature? And when I say part-time, I mean a body whose members only have a six-month session every other year?
That’s right. The Texas Legislature meets on the second Tuesday in January of each odd-numbered year. The Texas Constitution limits the regular session to 140 calendar days. Only the Governor can call the Legislature into special session. They can’t do it to themselves.
Maybe I am way off base at what the structure of the Texas Legislature means in term of policymaking in Texas. After all Texas does have an Energy Office and a Public Utilities Commission. I am happy to be educated on how it is not a factor.
Utility Resilience Plans
There was no lack of Webinars to sit in on over the past year, and I was very selective in what I chose to watch. One choice I am glad I made was to watch the one that ICF and Con Edison did that presented the Resilience Plan that the former did for the latter. It featured two ConEd Execs who talked very straightforwardly and openly about the challenges their utility faces from climate change. There may be a lot of Resilience Plans under development right now in response to the extreme events of 2021. But this Plan already exists and is worth a look by anyone who is in the electric utility industry.
Regionality in Climate Impacts
One positive development on climate awareness, in addition to just general acknowledgement and concern, is the understanding that climate change impacts will vary by region, and be of different types in different regions. Moreover, the impacts to date have been regional. Places like Alaska and the polar regions have seen some of the biggest increases in average temperature on the planet. The Northeast U.S. has seen a higher temperature rise than in other places. Some places are scheduled to get drier, some to get wetter. Some coastlines are in danger, others not so much.
As resilience, adaptation and even migration begin to be part of the climate conversation, regionalism in ones thinking, and in policy and actions at the national, state and local level will be essential.
EV manufacturing Targets v Sales
Am I the only one who struggles to understand the data that comes out on EV sales, EV manufacturing, EV charging stations and EV policy? Does it all mesh and synch up? Sometimes I think it doesn’t and that concerns me. I know that we are headed toward an all-electric transportation system (at least until I understand more about using hydrogen for transport) but the timeline sometimes seem questionable. I also am assuming that the timelines and predictions and goals that are being established are incorporating the right data on turn-over of the existing ICE autos. I just wish things were clearer to me on this.
Carbon Pricing Can’t Get a Break
Two weeks after I started managing a DC office for a utility, my CEO was called to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The topic? Carbon Taxes. Why? He was endorsing one at a low level. This of course was not the best calling card for me to as a new person having to explain this to the utility trade association. But what he called for made sense, and it made more and more sense to people of all stripes over the years. But even though logic, math and public policy is on its side, carbon pricing has had to continue to knock on the door of Congress asking to be let in. It has continued to be seen as a “third rail”. Even in the midst of what may be the largest and most significant new energy policy ever, carbon pricing still is not getting respect. We can't any longer let this arrow stay in the quiver of climate change mitigation options.
Party Planning for COP 26?
I have been to many of the UN COP Climate Meetings. I know what happens at them and what the good, bad and ugly of them is. I always explain that COPs actually operate in two different worlds. One is that of the diplomats and negotiators, who are there to figure out how nations can work together to stop climate change and at the same time help many nations of the world adapt to it. The other world is really that of a big party. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but as a way of saying that it is basically like a trade show and conference. That means that even as the need to address climate change becomes ever more urgent, many in the corporate and NGO world are putting enormous effort into planning receptions and securing speaking slots. I must admit that I often think that the COPs should devolve into just a continuous meeting of the country delegates. I will be writing more about this as COP 26 draws nearer.
Energy and Climate Become Official Members of the Club
I should have written something about this to show that things do sometimes change in the way we want them to. Ten years ago, the definition of stimulus was still excluding most energy infrastructure, and was still limited to a reference to bridges, highways, ports, etc. Now, whether the energy infrastructure provisions end up in the Infrastructure Bill or the Reconciliation Bill, energy is now officially accepted as essential infrastructure.
Corporate Decarbonization Commitments – Another Form of Greenwashing?
From what I have seen, there is more talk, chatter and ink devoted to greenwashing each year. But I should have written about something that I think deserves that moniker but which many may not be thought of that way. I refer to the increasing number of commitments by corporations and other entities to be Net-Zero by some date certain, or to reduce their emissions by so much by some date, or some similar type of promise.
We should all welcome these commitments but at the same time we need to not just put a check in the done column for that entity and move on to nudge others to do the same. If making announcements to reduce emissions or similar is not followed up by real action and real results starting immediately, then it really can just be yet another form of greenwashing. I should have raised this over the past year.
Choice Replacing Denialism
It has become harder for the fossil-fuel industry to use the denial theme given that the science has become even more irrefutable than it already was. From my vantage point, the industry (especially the gas sector) has pivoted to a message of choice. They are saying that customers should have a choice of what kind of fuel they buy and use and that policies such as bans is not the way to proceed on energy and climate policy.
Choice is right up there with freedom as an unassailable message on its face. But I should have written about how such choice can only be a climate-friendly choice when the cost of carbon is added to the fossil product portfolio. (Carbon Pricing anyone?). To simply talk about choice as being sacred is not policy for decarbonization and mitigation of climate change.
For All That Spare Time You Have While Working from Home
If you are like me, you may have trouble reading about the topic that you spend a lot of time working on. But when it comes to climate change, there seems to be a nice assortment of good books, both Fiction and Non-Fiction, that have come out recently. Here are the ones that I read and enjoyed:
Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Fiction)
Under the White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert (Non-Fiction)
The Story of More by Hope Jahrens (Non-Fiction)
The Wall by John Lanchester (Fiction)
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millett (Fiction)
Get Published - Build a Following
The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.
If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.