Biden can decarbonize electricity with these quick wins
Bold goals to address climate change are emerging globally, and the U.S. will undoubtedly announce its own shortly.
Many target clean electricity due to strong momentum and potential for immediate and long-term success, including decarbonizing other high-emitting sectors like transportation. The technical pathways to meet net-zero emissions goals demonstrate an accelerating role for renewable energy, thanks to tremendous recent cost declines. The future for clean electricity systems thus seems assured — almost. A key challenge remains in siting and building the massive amount of infrastructure needed to transport electricity to meet demand where and when it is needed. While regulatory and social barriers are widely acknowledged, solutions are few and far between, even as significant funding may soon become available through Congress’s pending “kitchen sink” infrastructure bill. To achieve 100 percent clean electricity, we need swift action to deploy distributed energy technologies — bringing supply closer to demand — and procedural innovation to rapidly expand transmission, enabling movement of large-scale renewable generation across regions.
Myriad carbon-free electricity scenarios exist. Some favor large-scale renewable power plants, generally located in areas with an abundance of natural resources, which tend to be far from cities that demand the vast majority of energy. Others favor rapidly deployable distributed systems with smaller, more flexible electricity generation and storage (for example, solar panels and batteries installed across an electricity-guzzling city), minimizing the need for transmission buildout while creating opportunities for innovation and environmental justice.
Most models favor large systems as dominant for a variety of reasons associated with cost and availability of space and resources. But there is a rub: large-scale plants will require enormous amounts of associated infrastructure in the form of new high-voltage transmission facilities, in large part because they are far from existing fossil and nuclear plants whose siting considerations are unrelated to wind and solar generation potential. New infrastructure will occupy rural landscapes in ways that may not provide local communities with much return while burdening them with costs.
In recent decades, the U.S. and Europe have found it extraordinarily difficult to site and build such infrastructure at the scale and speed necessary to address climate change due to overlapping environmental, regulatory, land use, ownership and “social license” reasons.
Under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) of 1970, all actions commissioned or permitted by a federal agency must thoroughly assess any associated environmental impacts. While critical for transparency and public accountability, these processes can take years to garner approval if the project is deemed to have potentially significant impacts and may ultimately prevent the project from being realized altogether. Companies and developers often foot the bill for the assessments, providing additional disincentive to engage.
Land use considerations can also be confounding. Rural landscapes have always served many uses and held diverse meanings, from mining to recreation, from ecological habitats to agricultural and forestry production, from wilderness, beauty, and spirituality to indigenous, natural and historical heritage. Since the late 19th century, federal and state land policy has recognized and prioritized a wide variety of such uses. Consequently, even in vast open spaces like Arizona, efforts to create priority areas on federal lands for siting renewable energy — or even maps of suitable space — have often failed.
Developers and even entire industries must also pay careful attention to local perceptions — which depend on communities’ sociocultural, political and historical context — to obtain a “social license to operate.” While establishing the trust of local communities is crucial for projects’ viability, it can also be extremely involved, requiring time and resources to engage in constructive dialogue with local stakeholders potentially in multiple locales.
Whether through retaining the NEPA reforms of the prior administration or identifying novel regulatory solutions, the Biden administration must tackle these challenges. But these barriers won’t disappear overnight. Fortunately, the Biden administration can begin down the path of decarbonizing electricity with some quick wins.
The primary alternative to large-scale power plants uses existing infrastructure to deploy generation in a more distributed fashion — generally closer to (primarily urban) end users. While somewhat more costly to install, such systems can avoid the time and financial burdens of siting and building transmission lines, create novel opportunities for digital models of energy management, ownership and governance, and make serious efforts to address poverty, inequality, and environmental and racial injustice in the energy system. Chief among these benefits may be the potential to enroll individuals, households, churches, neighborhoods and other community organizations in the project of decarbonization, and so build the social contract for rapid climate action. Paired with distributed storage, (smart) microgrids and demand response solutions, and distributed generation could also help shore up the resilience of local electricity grids.
It is unclear that the scale requirements of addressing climate change are feasible with an exclusively distributed approach, but it could get things moving in the right direction and quickly. Rooftops alone are insufficient to harbor the massive scale of renewable energy generation the U.S. will ultimately need. But there is significant untapped urban rooftop space that could provide an obvious starting place within energy demand centers, particularly if deployed equitably.
Of course, cities have many spaces besides rooftops, like parking lots and outdoor malls, that could host larger, more cost-efficient solar projects — including public art projects — while improving urban environments. Some have proposed networking hundreds of projects in virtual urban power plants to allow for faster and larger-scale deployment. And regarding cost, new estimates suggest that, when accounting for the full costs of getting power from solar fields to the city, distributed solar is not nearly as expensive as it may seem at first blush.
Still, distributed solutions must not distract from the stark challenge of bolstering transmission. As electricity becomes the fundamental backbone of American energy infrastructure, increased transmission will be crucial for grid resilience, in particular as we increasingly harness energy from variable renewable sources and face more extreme weather events.
A difficult road lies ahead in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. America needs all of the resources at its disposal and must seek ways to marry existing infrastructure and technological solutions with the innovations of tomorrow. In the near term, distributed generation is key to rapidly deploying renewable energy. Simultaneously, we must move quickly to realize a bold new grid infrastructure.
Greer Gosnell is a senior researcher at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, and she is a visiting fellow at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Morgan Bazilian is a professor and director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, and he was previously lead energy specialist at the World Bank. Clark A. Miller is professor and director of the Center for Energy and Society at Arizona State University.