Climate hedgehogs and foxes

The Democratic take-back of House of Representatives and the recent introduction of the “Green New Deal” Congressional resolution have reinvigorated discussion of action on climate change. The Green New Deal resolution calls for meeting 100 percent of U.S. power demand through “clean, renewable, and zero-carbon electricity” – a recognition that it will take all of the technologies in the toolkit, including nuclear and carbon-scrubbed fossil, to fully decarbonize the power sector. 

Despite pressure from those seeking an end to fossil use within 10 years and power the electric grid solely with wind and solar, coupled with batteries and other forms of energy storage, the Green New Deal resolution does not exclude any zero-carbon technologies.  As the Senate sponsor, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), said in announcing the introduction of the resolution: “While the resolution does not mention any specific technology, it talks about any technology that can dramatically reduce greenhouse gases.  . . .We are open to whatever works.”

{mosads}That is the wise approach.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many leading environmental organizations and the last Obama White House report, argue for the broadest possible set of approaches – the use of wind and solar energy, as well as increased use of nuclear energy, scrubbing carbon out of fossil fuels, and, in some cases, the expanded use of hydropower and biomass energy. 

Moreover, the most motivated states on climate issues have adopted the technology-inclusive approach. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently committed the state to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040. Last fall, California set a target of carbon-free energy by 2045. Earlier, Massachusetts set a technology-inclusive goal of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.  While these state plans include a large minimum share of renewable power, they allow other technologies to provide the balance.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once proposed a distinction between two kinds of thinking, quoting an aphorism that “[t]he fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin elaborated that hedgehog thinkers embrace single, pure explanations of the world, while foxes see complexity, contingency, and the potential for unintended consequences. The “100% renewable energy” vision is a Big Hedgehog Idea, consistent, attractive and highly marketable. But when it comes to solving climate change, the evidence favors the Foxes.

We’ve reviewed dozens of power sector studies and concluded that having a diverse set of technologies beyond wind and solar substantially reduces the cost of cutting carbon because the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. Worse, wind and sun vary dramatically over weeks and months, not just days, providing the needed power in some weeks and months, but virtually no power in others. At high levels of renewables you need to build three to eight times more wind and solar capacity to ensure that they can produce enough energy at times of low wind and sun – the rest of the time much of that energy would be wasted.

Some argue that batteries or other energy storage can solve this problem. But batteries typically store and discharge power over periods of 4-10 hours, not the weeks and months that are needed.  Balancing wind and sun with firmer technologies such as nuclear, carbon-scrubbed fossil plants, and “firm” renewables such as hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass – can avoid the high cost of wasted excess, or massive storage.

Additionally, tens of thousands of large wind and solar farms would need to be sited, along with tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines. And we would also need massive flexibility in demand – where residential, commercial, and industrial customers would have to curtail their electric use frequently and for long periods.

To be sure, nuclear energy has its own challenges and risks, some of which are being addressed by advanced reactor designs and cost containment strategies, and carbon-scrubbed fossil fuels and advanced geothermal energy are still at an early commercial stage. But this argues for more effort to diversify – not less – through research and development, demonstration, and commercial incentives for early scale-up, as we successfully did for wind and solar in the past few decades.

So this is the time not to close off climate options but to cultivate them, as New York, California and Massachusetts have. Other states are considering this approach, and The Green New Deal resolution suggests the federal government may eventually follow.

Single-bet, Hedgehog strategies might work, but bring all-or-nothing risks. Foxes, on the other hand, are known for their ability to adapt and survive.

Armond Cohen is Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force. Steve Brick is an Adjunct Energy and Climate Lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Tags Ed Markey Green New Deal solar wind energy

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