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Climate crisis — a bright light in the dark

Climate crisis — a bright light in the dark
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As fires fueled by climate change rage and create destruction on the ground, and menacing orange skies loom over communities across the West Coast, it’s hard to imagine anyone would make the case that we should slow our pursuit of clean energy. And yet that’s exactly what the gas industry and their political backers are doing. As extreme weather strains our power grid, they’re pushing our nation to double down on fossil fuels. We can’t let that happen.

In late August, some residents in California experienced rolling blackouts during hours of extreme heat and high demand for power. A host of factors contributed to the blackouts, including poor planning and the failure of some gas plants to operate under the harsh conditions. But in his acceptance speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE placed the blame squarely on clean energy policies advanced by his Democratic rival Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE. This falsehood was repeated elsewhere

In reality, renewable energy proved extremely reliable during the extreme heat wave, and it was more often fossil fuels (specifically gas plants) that failed. California’s grid operator Steve Berberich has emphatically said the blackouts are not related to renewable energy. In a press conference, Berberich said, “renewables are really not a factor... It's simply a matter of raw capacity,” and called for "an overbuild of renewables and a fairly extensive deployment of batteries."

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The answer for a world facing extreme weather, a mounting climate crisis and more strain on our electric grid is more clean energy, not less. That’s because renewables are flexible, reliable, affordable and readily dispatched onto the grid under any conditions. Wind, solar and energy storage did their part to support grid reliability during this crisis, dependably providing the power that grid operators were counting on because they don’t require fuels or technologies that fail under extreme conditions. And they did so without making the larger climate crisis even worse. 

Gas and other planet-roasting fossil fuel power plants, on the other hand, sometimes fail us in moments of extreme heat and cold for a long list of reasons: technical malfunctions; the piles of coal at a coal plant are frozen; or the water needed for cooling is too hot to use. In California’s heat wave, gas plants failed when their power was needed most, likely because they couldn’t perform normally under the extreme heat, worsening the power shortage. Building these gas plants had cost customers millions of dollars, for the promise of reliable power that failed.

Looking ahead, California’s utility commission has approved a plan to procure enough new power capacity to meet the peak needs of 850,000 homes. California needs to stay the course and secure all that power capacity from clean energy. The state needs even more — more local clean energy resources, larger investments in energy efficiency and better energy management programs — to ensure electricity supply can meet demand, especially as we continue to face more extreme weather driven by climate change.  

Implementing these solutions can call on the leadership of and benefit communities hardest hit by climate change and fossil fuel pollution — most often communities of color. Completing all this work will also create hundreds of thousands of jobs in every community across the country, and it will put back to work the half million Americans who lost their clean energy jobs nationwide during the pandemic, in sectors ranging from energy efficiency to renewables to clean vehicles, jobs lost as part of the overall economic strain facing the country.

This isn’t just a California story. From the derecho that knocked out power across Iowa to the arrival of multiple hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, the climate crisis is landing on the doorsteps of Americans across this country. In all those places, accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy is a solution and an economic opportunity at all of our fingertips. And we now have a roadmap that shows us how to get there.

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Earlier this month, MacArthur Fellowship genius and engineer Dr. Saul Griffith launched Rewiring America, an organization that debuted with an innovative report outlining a detailed plan for rapidly transforming the energy landscape across our nation at the scale and scope that would keep climate change below the dangerous tipping points of 1.5 degrees Celsius of temperature rise. Leah Stokes, an environmental policy expert at the University of California Santa Barbara, summarized the study this way

“The report reinforces a key finding. Cleaning up the electricity system solves the lion’s share of the problem. It allows us to electrify our transportation and building sectors and parts of heavy industry, which would address more than 70 percent of total emissions.”

Here’s the best part of the Rewiring America report — we already have everything we need to make this happen. The report is clear that existing technologies can do the job, as long as we deploy them in a massive push over the next decade.

Building more clean energy faster and doing it right will create jobs in an economic crisis (in industries ranging from wind to solar to auto manufacturing to home improvement), make our air safer to breathe in a public health crisis, and make our power grid more resilient and reduce planet-warming emissions in a climate crisis. It will also help to address the heavy pollution burden of communities of color in this time of national reckoning with racial injustice.

So, don’t be fooled by the gas industry and their allies. It’s time for more clean energy, not less. It’s time for our state and federal governments to cut our ties with fossil fuels. We can do this. We, the American people, cannot let the fossil fuel industry dictate what comes next. 

Mary Anne Hitt  is the national director of campaigns at the Sierra Club. She is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.