Eco-nomics: What it takes to take carbon out of energy

The transition to clean energy demands investment in R&D and the grid and streamlining processes.

By Paul Roberts / For The Herald

Successfully battling the climate crisis requires ending reliance on fossil fuels as soon as possible, thereby reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions they produce. To do that, we must transition to a clean energy zero-emission economy. The Paris agreement set targets global temperature rise and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Too often this transition is described in terms of what is politically possible. The more appropriate question is, what is technically necessary? And how do we make what is technically necessary politically possible?

In his book “ELECTRIFY: An Optimist’s Playbook For Our Clean Energy Future,” engineer and founder of “Rewiring America,” Saul Griffith, underscores the urgency of acting now and sets forth an agenda. He explains what it would take to transform our infrastructure, update our grid, and adapt our economy to make it possible. The endgame is decarbonization.

Knowing the direction is simple. Getting there is complex. There is no switch to flip to turn on a clean energy zero-emission economy, but there are clear steps forward and some are being taken now. Much more needs to be done and much faster.

Let’s focuses on the steps toward this transition from the perspective of our regional economy and electrical grid. However, the issues associated with energy supply and demand apply universally across the globe.

A clean-energy economy is about managing electrons, replacing energy generated from fossil fuels with zero-emission clean energy. It involves examining how energy is produced, distributed and used.

Research and development is an essential component in the transition. R&D is particularly important, serving the economic sectors that generate the most GHG emissions: energy (involving both supply and demand), transportation, buildings and agriculture. Technologies necessary to transition from fossil fuels are not yet fully developed for buildings and agriculture, and not yet fully available at scale for energy and transportation. R&D is needed in all sectors to develop a clean energy economy replacing fossil fuels.

Griffith makes a series of recommendations including:

• “Electrify (nearly) everything.”

• “Massive generation and transmission buildout of infrastructure.” This includes generation, storage and grid capacity for all clean sources (e.g. hydro, wind, off-shore wind, solar and nuclear), as well as R&D investments in potential new technologies such as fusion and hydrogen. It also includes battery storage necessary to smooth out peaks and valleys of supply and demand. Examples in Snohomish County and Washington state include R&D operations by Helion and ZAP energy (fusion), TerraPower (nuclear), and the Snohomish County PUD working on battery storage at their Arlington facility (see “Eco-Nomics: Snohomish PUD turning a light on climate success,” Dec. 9, 2023).

• “New finance mechanisms” to underwrite the clean-energy zero-emission economy expansion.

• Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

• Eliminate regulations that artificially inflate the costs of the transition.

• “A wartime-like mobilization of industry,” similar to World War II, to decarbonize key economic sectors and meet targets.

In the Pacific Northwest, some of Griffith’s recommendations are beginning to take shape. They are reflected in the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee (PNUCC) report released this month, titled: “Northwest Regional Forecast of Power Loads and Resources: August 2024 through July 2034.” For more then 70 years, the PNUCC has analyzed demand projections from utilities located in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana issuing annual forecasts for the region.

Notable in this year’s report is the rapid surge in demand for electricity and the projected need for new generation capacity. The demand factors include expansion of data centers, high-tech manufacturing growth and the trend toward broad electrification, as well as electrifying transportation.

The report points out: “The dual challenge of extraordinary growth in demand and the transition to lower carbon-emitting generation resources translates to a tremendous and urgent need to upgrade the region’s electricity infrastructure; including expanding transmission capacity and diversifying power supplies as well as accelerating the adoption of advanced grid technologies.”

For the mid-term and beyond, the ultimate goal is to decarbonize energy, transportation, buildings and agriculture and meet the goal of net zero by 2050, 26 years from now. In the short term (August 2024 through July 2034) the PNUCC has set an agenda to increase power production, and improve and expand the grid. These are compatible and complementary objectives pointing in the right direction. However, they require significant planning and coordinated investments among public and private utilities, and all levels of government.

The urgency to act cannot be overstated. As if on cue, last week NOAA released the most recent observations from the Mauna Loa Observatory showing the largest annual leap for carbon dioxide ever measured. “Not only is CO2 still rising in the atmosphere, it’s increasing faster and faster,” said Arlyn Andrews, a climate scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

We are taking steps in the right direction; just not fast enough. Mother Nature is repeatedly sending wake up calls. For more than 50 years we have chosen to ignore them, and our choices now are fewer and more difficult as a result. The challenges in developing a clean-energy zero-emission economy are both technical and political. The technical side requires actionable strategies and R&D at speed and scale. Not everything in the economy can be easily or quickly converted to clean energy. The political response requires willpower not willful ignorance.

Paul Roberts is retired and lives in Everett. His career spans over five decades in infrastructure, economics and environmental policy including advising Washington cities on climate change and past Chair of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Board of Directors.

Eco-nomics

Eco-nomics is a series of articles exploring issues at the intersection of climate change and economics. Climate change (global warming) is caused by greenhouse gas emissions — carbon dioxide and methane chiefly — generated by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels and agricultural practices. Global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. Successfully responding to this threat requires urgent actions — clear plans and actionable strategies — to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate-influenced events.

The Eco-nomics series, to be published regularly in The Herald, is focusing on mitigation and adaptation strategies viewed through the twin perspectives of science and economics. Find links to the series thus far at tinyurl.com/HeraldEco-nomics.

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