“I think of 100% [renewables] as a bit of a red herring. If you want 100%, it should be 100% zero carbon electricity. Climate change is the existential threat and I don’t want to waste time arguing about what’s renewable or not. You have to get the carbon out of the energy system as quickly as possible.”
— California Governor Jerry Brown, quoted in CleanTechnica
California energy policies should focus on reducing emissions: They don’t.
Governor Brown obviously gets it. The goal of an effective clean energy policy is getting emissions out of our energy stream. Unfortunately, for a range of political (and, some suspect, personal financial) reasons, Jerry Brown has allowed California to pursue misguided energy goals under its “Renewable Portfolio Standard.” This RPS is an approach that is focused on increasing the amount of energy generated by renewables such as wind and solar. While this goal appears aligned with the true goal, in fact it is not the same and does not actually achieve the underlying goal. Not only are there are ulterior motives involved in focusing on renewables—such as trying to re-engineer our energy system from a centralized structure to a distributed structure and also reduce the competitive stance of nuclear power—there are also enormous flaws in the way the RPS has been structured, which have allowed natural gas to use a “back door” to achieve 3 to 4 times the growth of renewables themselves. Thus, the “100% renewables” mantra sounds good but is actually a gift to the fossil fuel industry allowing it to expand, hence it is a counterfeit standard, which does not eliminate emissions from the system at all. Going forward, the focus needs to be on “100% clean energy.”
National Energy & Climate Policies
The 2018 midterm elections will be bringing a new Democratic majority to Congress. Among those elected are quite a few representatives who clearly get just how critical addressing climate change is. They are bringing new ideas and new passion to Congress and seem committed to working on developing legislation to address the crisis, which the Republican-led Congress refused to do. Notably, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York’s 14th district, has called for a Green New Deal and she has released a proposal for a rule change to create a brand new Select Committee on a Green New Deal, which committee would then be empowered to draft a plan that would transform our economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis.
“The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) shall be developed with the objective of reaching the following outcomes within the target window of 10 years from the start of execution of the Plan: 1. Dramatically expand existing renewable power sources and deploy new production capacity with the goal of meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources.”
We have started a MoveOn petition called “We need a Green New Deal focused on achieving 100% Clean Energy and Zero Emissions” directed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Ocasion-Cortez and all of the signatories of the Green New Deal to urge them to focus on “100% Clean Energy.” Please consider signing our petition. You can see how many people have signed on here.
California was leading . . . now following other states towards a more effective Clean Energy Standard
When California implemented its Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2002, requiring utilities to produce 50 percent of their retail electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2030, it was considered ground-breaking. At least thirty states followed California’s lead and implemented some variety of an RPS, requiring utilities to source some portion of their energy from renewables. Accordingly, the U.S. has seen the biggest gas boom in the years since, especially in the area of fracking of shale gas, as the flaw in the RPS enabled huge increases in demand for natural gas by utilities. Billions were spent by fossil fuel investors to meet this demand and the amount of gas production skyrocketed, bringing the cost of gas down. Cheap gas—a by-product of the defective RPS—has nevertheless helped to reduce the U.S.’s carbon emissions, not because of the notional increases in renewables, but rather because gas became so much cheaper to burn than coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas’s share of U.S. electricity generation has risen from 21% to 35% during the past decade. At the same time, coal’s share has dropped from 48% to under 30%. Cheap natural gas has also helped keep energy prices from rising as high as they might have, as a result of the extra additions of renewables.
When natural gas burns, it releases about 60% of the carbon emissions of coal and almost none of the other noxious and radioactive toxins associated with coal burning. Nevertheless, natural—which is also known as methane—is a molecule estimated to be 80 to 100 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide and so is one of the worst of the common greenhouse gases. Studies have shown that while there appears to be a big climate benefit when from switching from coal to gas, when the production chain for natural permits leakages from wells, from pipelines or from storage units, even as little as 3% leakage is so detrimental to the climate, it can eliminate any of the climate benefits of that switch.
Meandering towards the more effective Clean Energy Standard
Mankind has used the atmosphere as a dumping ground for waste emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. What is needed is to stop adding more waste emissions and to begin to reduce the amount that is already up there, trapping heat and impacting climate. California’s first efforts to address emissions from energy were called “Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which focused on transitioning our energy generation on clean energy sources, specifically “renewable” energy sources. Renewables are generally defined to include solar, wind, small hydro (but not large hydro), geothermal, biowaste and biofuels (even though they also emit carbon when burned). It does not include nuclear power, which emits no carbon. The original reasoning for this definition was the desire by legislators to force utilities to build more distributed solar and wind generation, rather than build more large-scale hydro or nuclear energy plants.
The effect of these policies achieved the legislative goal of forcing utilities to build more wind and solar. What these policies did not achieve, however, was the reduction of emissions. Somehow (and we are not sure why), the RPS allows utilities to tally up their renewable name-plate capacity but then, when the sun isn’t shining or the wind not blowing, to burn dirty sources like coal or natural gas to fill in for urgently need generation. Apparently, there is not requirement under the RPS that the utility needs to deliver clean energy, just that renewables—no matter how poorly they generate power—get built. The net effect is that the cost of energy under RPS standards has mushroomed as we add wind and solar (and would be even higher if natural gas were not so cheap) but the amount of emissions from our energy mix has not decreased.
As many as 30 states followed California’s lead and adopted a form of RPS. This has led to a huge spike in the number of renewables plants being built, however, the absolute amount of clean energy provided by renewables remains exceedingly low. Quite simply, capacity is not the same as generation. When solar or wind generate energy only 20 to 30% of the time, the remainder of that “capacity” is provided by natural gas. This has enabled natural gas to transform from a marginal energy player to the largest fossil component of our energy, resulting in a boom in natural gas fracking, increasing numbers of natural gas-burning plants and a vast expansion of natural gas wells and pipelines. Natural gas emits about 2/3rds as much CO2 as coal but when actual methane leaks are added back, it is not clear there is any true climate benefit, since methane is 80 to 100 times as heat-trapping as CO2. We focus on how fast renewables are growing but the RPS “backdoor” has driven natural gas growth three to four times that amount. The irony is that studies now show that the only meaningful reductions found in our emissions are those associated with switch utilities have made in burning natural gas rather than coal.
Fortunately, the flaws in the RPS have become clearer. States with legislative mandates to reduce emissions—like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois—have modified the RPS to include nuclear power’s clean generation. These states have wisely modified the RPS to a “Clean Energy Standard” that has a focus on valuing emission-free generation rather than just adding more renewable capacity. Where the energy markets are unregulated and utilities are forced to buy energy on spot markets, low-cost gas has contributed to the closure of some older nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants, which have fixed operating costs and are obliged to manage all of their waste, have been unable to compete against cheap, dirty energy that is still allowed to dump its waste into the atmosphere for free. To prevent clean nuclear power from being unfairly treated, New York, New Jersey and Illinois have placed a value on the delivery of emission-free energy called a “Zero Emission Credit.” This enables utilities to buy existing generation from nuclear power and get a tax break that makes up the difference between that fixed cost clean energy and the super-low dirty energy coming from gas plants.
Even California has recently come around the recognize that using the RPS is not sufficient. In September, 2018, Governor Brown signed SB 100 which calls for 100% Clean Energy by 2045, to be derived from a combination of “renewables and other clean energy sources.” And more states with existing nuclear power are evaluating the impacts of taking their eye off the ball and promoting the expansion of renewables, without getting a corresponding benefit in the form of reduced emissions. There are new calls for national low-carbon energy standards that seek to focus on the ends—i.e. the emissions—rather than the means. These will likely force revisions to the RPS standards as they are written: which don’t focus on emission reductions. This is a good trend and it is likely to help preserve most of our existing nuclear power plants and their clean energy, while also requiring that utilities cut back on burning fossil fuels.
Politics, fossil fuel lobbying, and antinuclear prejudice within the environmental community all got in the way of achieving drastic reductions in emissions to date but we are finally beginning to move in the right direction. We urge everyone who is concerned about climate to demand 100% clean energy—however we can get there—and avoid saying “100% renewables,” as this standard has been proven to be a counterfeit focus that does not achieve the goals that we need.
Driving electric grid emissions down to zero
The following are energy policy changes that will help states achieve true emissions reductions:
1. Change Renewable Portfolio Standards to Clean Energy Standards, which is inclusive of all zero-emission energies sources, and refocus state goals on achieving milestones towards zero net emissions, even if it means providing “zero-emission credits” to sources of clean generation, as New York State has done.
2. Maintain Renewable Portfolio Standards but further require that all back-up generation also be provided by sources of clean baseload energy that also does not emit carbon or methane emissions.
3. Implement a Utility Carbon Tax on utility generation, implemented over time, so that utilities pay a penalty out of profits for the amount of carbon emissions generated and methane released over specific limits set, so they are highly motivated to curb excess carbon emissions.
4. Alternatively, restructure utility financial incentives to reward their success in meeting the zero net emissions goal as quickly as possible and remove compensation based upon simply build-outs of new capital, as is currently the case. Any generation that adds emissions should subtract from compensation.
5. Pass a Carbon Tax and use the proceeds to fund clean tech innovation to improve all forms of clean energy and clean technologies, help create clean jobs and bolster the U.S.’s competitive position in the global markets for advanced energy and grid security.
6. Hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for the CO2 emissions they have contributed and assess penalties to cover the removal of CO2 from the ocean and atmosphere so as to immediately fund commencement of this critical draw-down activity.
7. Plan for the full phase out of fossil fuels entirely by implementing a future ban with progressive penalties on utilities that continue emitting CO2 after a reasonable transition period.