5 Questions with Energy Innovation
Posted August 2015
After so many years working on climate change issues, what keeps you hopeful?
I get motivated by two trends: First, clean energy technologies have plummeted in price in the last five years, with solar and LED lights down more than 66%, wind by nearly half, and dozens more exhibiting similar trends. This means that, for the first time ever, we can build a low-carbon future for the same price as a highly polluting business-as-usual approach. That is a really big deal.
Second, a number of leader governments in Germany, Sweden, California, Shenzhen, and South Korea, for example, have adopted strong energy policies, and they are discovering that it is cheaper, faster, and more economical to decarbonize the economy than anyone had anticipated.
We need to help the leaders get further ahead, and we need to ensure that the laggards start to catch up.
Given the fragmented energy system and the wrong incentives that are in place, what is the most effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions?
The big winner, by far, has been performance standards. We are familiar with performance standards in many realms: We expect our tap water to be clean, our buildings to resist fires, and cars to be reasonably safe. In the energy realm, key performance standards are building codes, fuel efficiency standards for cars, and renewable portfolio standards for utilities.
Of course it would be useful to have a price on carbon—in the form of a carbon tax or a carbon cap—but performance standards have achieved far more, and their potential is still vast.
What is the most misunderstood aspect of climate change?
For reasons of consistency, scientists measure and model climate change in average global temperature change. This is useful because it links together all the work of thousands of researchers. But a number like 2 degrees C disguises the real issue, which is weather extremes. Climate change makes 100-year floods happen every ten years; it produces crop-killing temperature extremes; it makes for extended droughts.
What new technologies are you most excited about for reversing CO2 emissions?
The revolution in solar panels (photovoltaic cells) is nothing short of game-changing. They have dropped 66% in price in just five years, making them competitive with fossil fuels in many, and perhaps most, situations across the world. There are similar, if less noticed, gains in dozens of energy efficiency technologies, ranging from LED lights to smart building controllers to the drive trains in cars. Put it together and it is possible to see a zero-carbon economy at zero incremental cost.
What do you see as the role of cities versus national government in making changes necessary to curb emissions?
Most energy policy in the USA actually happens at the state level. That’s where utilities are regulated, and they control 60% of carbon emissions. A smart set of utility regulations—set by public utilities commissions—can have the funds you spend on your utility bill land on green choices instead of brown. States also set building codes, are a key influence on transportation infrastructure, and if they are paying attention, can work with California to increase the efficiency of cars and trucks. We need not resolve the dysfunction in Washington to solve the climate crisis—although that would be really useful.
As an example, California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates that the state’s share of electricity from renewables be 25% by 2015 (already achieved!) and 33% by 2020.
Cities have a big role too: A creative mayor and city council can devise strategies to decrease congestion, increase the energy efficiency in buildings, and purchase more green power. But perhaps their biggest opportunity is to apply political pressure on state and federal officials, insisting that they get serious about reducing carbon pollution.