How do we get to a low-carbon energy system?

By Jeff Terry | June 28, 2018


Both the current and previous US presidential administrations tried to come up with a forward-looking electricity policy, and both appear to have failed. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise, as it’s not an easy task. A lot of confounding variables and competing interests make it very difficult to change our electricity-generating habits.

Still, we have to try. Measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere indicate a steady increase since the data was first recorded in the 1950s. (See chart below.) Scientists use computer models to predict the long-term effect of this increase on the climate. Unfortunately, the models—grounded in well-understood physics—indicate that the outcome will be a warmer planet. (The National Academy of Sciences has put together a nice site explaining how these computer models work.) It is possible that the science and modeling will evolve, and that the magnitude of some of the effects could be smaller or larger than predicted. But it is highly likely that using the atmosphere as a dump for the waste products of fossil fuel combustion—as we have been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution—will have negative consequences.

The need for a low-carbon electricity grid is clear; how to achieve one, less so. The Obama Administration came out with the Clean Power Plan in 2015 after the US Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide from power plants could be regulated as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, the Clean Power Plan overreached, with negative consequences. To satisfy the Supreme Court decision, the administration only needed to create a rule that limited carbon dioxide emissions and set penalties for non-compliance. Instead it went further, issuing complex prescriptions for how renewable energy could be used to meet the new requirements.

While overreaching in some areas, the Clean Power Plan didn’t do enough in others. For example, it has no provisions to prevent existing low-carbon generators from closing until fossil fuel generators are removed from the grid. As a result, the Clean Power Plan allows emissions to actually increase under scenarios where nuclear plants are closed and replaced with natural-gas-burning units, as Daniel Curtis of MIT and Nicholas Thompson of the Los Alamos National Laboratory detailed in a presentation at the 2016 International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants. Nor did the Clean Power Plan seriously consider the need for a resilient electricity grid. A low-carbon grid that fails too often will lead to the reintroduction of fossil-fuel generation, as happened in Japan after nuclear power plants were shut following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Finally, the Clean Power Plan didn’t include a strong mechanism to protect consumers in case the cost of compliance spiraled out of control.

The Trump Administration, meanwhile, has made two attempts to come up with a plan for a future electricity grid, but neither necessarily required low carbon-dioxide emissions. In 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed a “grid resiliency pricing rule” that would have paid a premium to both coal and nuclear power plants—energy generators that can keep a large quantity of fuel on site—to ensure a steady supply of electricity during cold snaps and winter storms. A federal commission rejected the plan. This spring, in a sort of follow-up, the president ordered the Energy Secretary to stop the closing of coal and nuclear plants. It is not clear how this is supposed to happen, but it is possible that Perry could prevent plant closures by invoking a presidential policy directive from 2013 on “critical infrastructure security and resilience.” Both of these Trump administration efforts have focused on the need to ensure the resiliency of the electricity grid, a goal I strongly support. Unfortunately, these measures have failed to address the issue of climate change.

None of the plans put forward by either of the two administrations have done enough to ensure a resilient electricity grid with decreasing carbon emissions. The United States is not alone: It is unlikely that any industrialized countries will meet the emission-reduction goals they agreed to under the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Why do so many industrialized countries have such difficulty developing a low-carbon electricity supply?

Simple but complex. Our requirements for an electrical supply are on one level fairly simple, and historically were two-fold. People demanded that electricity be available virtually all the time. And people did not want their local environment to tangibly suffer, for example in the form of air pollution, bad smells, waste dumping, or other health hazards. These two conditions have been met in most of the industrialized world for much of the last 30 years. The US electricity grid is very reliable, and the Energy Department studies it carefully to keep it that way. Thanks to the 1970 Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments affecting acid rain, the United States has dramatically cleaned up the local environment around electrical plants and reduced the environmental effects of fossil fuel-based generators.

However, climate science now tells us that we must move beyond local environmental effects and be concerned about the global impact of our electricity grid. In the United States, we have no national policy on how to address the climate effects of the electricity supply. Since climate change is a major concern for many people and there has been no national action, we now have a number of states instituting policies that affect power generators. This spring, California mandated rooftop solar panels on new home construction. Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut have passed legislation subsidizing nuclear plants to ensure their continued operation. The Minnesota and Ohio legislatures considered and rejected similar proposals. All of these decisions come down to the question of whether we want to spend more money on electricity now to avoid unknown costs in the future. Each decision will come with its own set of unintended consequences: Heavily solar-powered areas may find it costly and challenging to provide electricity in the late afternoon; areas with higher costs due to subsidies may lose manufacturing; and areas where nuclear plants close may face higher carbon dioxide emissions. We just don’t yet know where these state-level and piecemeal policies will lead.

New technologies may come along that change the game: For example, a natural-gas electricity plant that captures its own carbon dioxide emissions says it will come online in Texas later this year. But assuming that natural gas isn’t the long-term solution to climate change, we need to find other means to develop a low-carbon electricity grid. Our requirements may be simple, but the systems involved are complex:

The electricity grid must generate enough power to reliably meet demand at every moment. Most of the world uses an alternating current, and the frequency of the current (60 cycles per second—Hertz or Hz—in the United States and 50 Hz in other parts of the world) must be very well-controlled to avoid damaging equipment. Power must get from where it is created to where it is used via a transmission and distribution system. A large and complicated supply chain provides the fuel and equipment required. Governments monitor and regulate the effect of power generation on the environment, animals, and humans. Finally, electricity must be generated at as low a cost as possible.

Meeting all these goals requires a holistic approach. We cannot rebuild the electricity grid based on engineering or economics alone, a fact well-intentioned planners sometimes seem to forget. Energy experts, including the US Energy Information Agency, tend to study the “levelized cost of electricity,” which is the total cost of building and operating a plant divided by the amount of electricity produced to get a figure in dollars per kilowatt-hour. But while we tend to focus on the costs of manufacturing or operation, as these are the easiest ones to address, they do not account for the entire cost of changing the grid.

Assembling a dream team. To address all the issues that will arise as the electricity supply evolves, we need expertise from a variety of fields.

Obviously, we need engineers to address the technical challenges. They will have to develop the means to ensure the resiliency of the grid. We also need engineers and scientists to invent new storage technologies. The renewable energy sources that many governments are pushing because they don’t emit carbon dioxide also create an intermittency problem—that is, they are not always there when we need them, because (for instance) the wind is not blowing or clouds are limiting solar generation. Modern society demands instant-on electricity.

But we need other kinds of scientists too. Ecologists, for instance. Thanks to them, we have long known that hydroelectric dams harm fish, in part by blocking free passage to breeding grounds. This observation has spawned innovations like fish ladders and fish cannons to help fish get from point A to point B. More recently, with the rise of renewable energy, ecologists have identified wind turbines as harmful to birds and bats, which can in turn potentially cause problems for food crops such as agave and corn. As the grid changes and power sources shift, it is important that we keep studying the potential issues, provide mitigation strategies, and if all else fails assign costs for the lost species. (Government agencies already assign a value to a human life—currently $10 million—for the purpose of cost-benefit analysis of regulations.)

But we need more than science to create a plan for the future electricity grid. We also need social scientists, beginning with economists. Currently, energy economists forecast the cost of operating the grid to meet supply and demand. But economists will also have to do something not yet widely practiced, which is to account for the secondary costs, such as health and environmental effects, that aren’t being adequately attributed. Fortunately, people like Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, are developing new models that include secondary costs due to carbon emissions and other pollutants. Hopefully, these models can be expanded in the future to account for the cost of even more of energy production’s externalities.

We also need social scientists to assess and help mitigate the human cost of the transition to a low-carbon economy. People have lost jobs in nuclear and coal energy just in the last few years. Certain regions have lost whole industries. As we transition away from coal and other fossil fuels, more people will lose jobs and be forced to move, which is challenging for both emotional and economic reasons. There aren’t necessarily buyers for homes in dying towns, and moving is expensive. As a society, we will have to plan for this with job programs and ways to attract new industries to these areas. Kentucky, for instance, has experimented with aerospace jobs for former mining communities. If we do not find strategies to help people deal with transition and loss, we will continue to face the high costs of opioid addiction in regions afflicted by a profound sense of hopelessness. The cost of addressing these human factors is one of the costs of the energy transition.

Social scientists will also play an important role in finding ways to address people’s fears. The electricity transition will require some of us to live near expanded transmission lines and new nuclear plants, wind farms, and solar-generation stations. If carbon capture technologies succeed and we extend the use of natural gas, we will need expanded pipeline infrastructure, both to carry the fuel to plants and to carry carbon dioxide to final disposal sites. Already, we have seen grassroots and political objections to new electricity infrastructure; currently, for example, Maine residents are fighting over the effects of a proposed new transmission line that would deliver hydropower from Canada to New England.

In short, the conversion to a low-carbon electricity grid will require enormous readjustments across all sectors of society. We need an expert panel of scientists, engineers, ecologists, social scientists, and economists to develop a reasonable plan on how to accomplish the transi­tion. No one is going to be happy with every suggestion they come up with, and we will have to accept some tough but pragmatic solutions.

I’m pretty sure we won’t succeed if we entrust the planning to lobbyists, but that is exactly who will steer the course without a comprehensive national policy. Unfortunately, neither of the last two US administrations have put together a real plan of action. We can hope that the public will start to demand one.

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Malcolm Rawlingson
Malcolm Rawlingson
5 years ago

In Ontario, Canada…your neighbour to the north we have successfully reduced carbon emissions from our electricity system. Firstly we have maximized our production of hydro-electricity by looking at every possible site and improving the equipment and technologies. Ontario is fortunate to have these resources and I recognize that many do not. We have also invested in conservation or nega-watts by improvements in lighting efficiency and electric motor efficiency. Investments have also been made in grid connected solar power and wind energy as well as non grid connected facilities. However by far the largest contribution has been nuclear energy. We have… Read more »

Steve Rusk
Steve Rusk
5 years ago

There should also be a plan to compensate the victims of these “new” energy programs. It’s all a dirty business, when one of these energy programs comes to your community those under it’s footprint forfeit their rights in the matter immediately. The money it brings is front page news, the victims get no such mention. I was given no options, no offer of compensation. Prior to the construction of the Blue Creek wind Farm my home was worth $73,000, after they built the wind farm around it my place last sold for $16,500. Neither I nor my neighbors have been… Read more »

5 years ago

There are number of policy mechanisms to move this issue faster and further, but to achieve “enormous readjustments across all sectors of society” you will need market forces to align toward the end. Much like climate scientists being in complete accord regarding the human origins of current climate change, economists are also in large accord regarding the best first step to take toward reducing atmospheric carbon – put a price on carbon emissions. The reason we have so successfully carbonized our atmosphere and the oceans is simply because we socialized all the risk in doing so. The Market sees this… Read more »

Roger N Blomquist
Roger N Blomquist
5 years ago

This is a necessary part of a very important discussion. We need to focus on the overall total, all-in cost of electricity and aggregate environmental consequences, and not merely the cost of a type of generating station. Electricity is a critical service, and banking it is very, very expensive.

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It is possible that the science and modeling will evolve, and that the magnitude of some of the effects could be smaller or larger than predicted.