Plus: The world needs to (at least!) quadruple its electricity
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NOV 10, 2021


We’ve got you covered from Maine to Glasgow, Scotland, where the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP26, is entering its second and final week.

Check out my interview with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) at the University of Chicago last week on all things climate change. It was my first in-person, on-stage interview since the pandemic!

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Developments from COP26
  • COP26: Draft deal calls for stronger carbon cutting targets by end of 2022 BBC
  • Indigenous activists are united in a cause and are making themselves heard at COP26 NPR
  • His country is sinking. So he’s rolling up his pants to make the point at COP26. NBC News
  • Four of world’s five largest vehicle makers fail to back COP26 emissions agreement Financial Times (paywall)
Hurdles abound in race to build more clean energy
As conference attendees were waking up last week for the annual United Nations climate conference underway in Glasgow, Scotland, voters in Maine were rejecting a proposed power line sending Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts.

The two may not seem particularly related, but they are.

Countries are touting their pledges in Glasgow to meet net-zero carbon emissions goals by 2050. But to meet those goals, innumerable local and national decisions must be made that will enable rapidly evolving clean electricity technology to power a net-zero economy.

Maine’s parochial fight over a modest, 150-mile power line project may not seem consequential. On its own, it’s not.

But it’s not just Maine.

It’s Midwestern states who helped torpedo a 700-mile power line that would have sent massive amounts of Oklahoma wind power to the East Coast.

It’s farmers in Australia not wanting a power line traversing their potato fields.

It’s rural residents in New York, Oregon, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas and more who don’t want solar farms around them.

It’s people in Spain and Germany protesting large-scale wind and solar farms.

These are snapshots of a global dilemma.

Data for the U.S. is stark. Less than a quarter of all proposed power-plant projects made it to operation because of transmission challenges, according to a government study earlier this year. The time it takes to get there for those who do is increasing (the success rate is even lower for wind and solar).

Opponents in each of these battles say that any number of unique circumstances make these projects uniquely bad.

In Maine, opponents cited several issues, including an unpopular utility company pushing the project and the route’s proposed pathway through dozens of miles in Maine’s Western forest (much of it is already cleared for the line).

“The urgency of climate change shouldn’t justify bad projects,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group opposing the powerline. “We completely recognize that a build-out of transmission lines is going to be necessary.”

The thing is: everyone has their own understandable gripes about proposed projects. But if everyone succeeds in rejecting the project they don’t like, we won’t have enough clean electricity to achieve our net-zero goals.
Developers of the Maine project say they will keep fighting in court despite last week’s vote, though the ballot outcome has significantly dimmed its outlook.

In a future where 85% of the world’s total energy mix (not just electricity) comes from renewables (chiefly wind and solar), renewables would need to increase six times over their current amount, according to BloombergNEF.

Even in a future energy system heavily dependent on technologies capturing carbon emissions from coal and natural gas plants, we would still need to triple the current amount of renewable energy.

Heather Zichal, CEO of The American Clean Power Association, a newly formed group comprised of wind producers and other clean energy developers, says companies are already approaching limits of new energy production in some parts of the country because of a dearth of power lines.

Solutions are shaping up to be a mix of better collaboration and more aggressive government action.

Developers, alongside state and local governments, should better incorporate local community input in planning processes, according to pretty much everyone I talked to for this story, including Didisheim in Maine and Andrew Bray, national director at RE-Alliance, an Australia-based environmental nonprofit.

“There has to be a relationship of trust between a company and the landholders involved in the project and with the surrounding communities,” Bray wrote by email.

His organization supports expediting the clean energy transition by facilitating better community engagement with new projects. That includes both effective engagement and tangible benefits, Bray writes: “At the end of the day, the company has to be able to answer the very reasonable question from local communities, ‘what's in it for us?’ ”

The bipartisan infrastructure bill awaiting President Biden’s signature includes a measure aimed at expediting the review of interstate power lines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would receive expanded powers in certain situations to issue siting permits if state agencies deny them.

But U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told me in our September interview that a federal agency usurping states’ authorities should be a “last resort.”

Bray said that a similar government tool in Australia—called compulsory acquisition—should only be used as a “last resort.”

Some longtime energy experts say that’s where we’re at.

"Anyone who looks honestly at time frames here should realize we're already at the last resort," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Grumet, noting his prior work on behalf of Northeastern states, continued: “I can say with absolute confidence if we’re not prepared to pre-empt states, it’s hard to imagine we can create a nationwide, low-carbon infrastructure in the next 20 years.”

Amy’s Lunchtime Reads
and Hot Takes

Net-Zero Alliance Plans to Reject Gas, Nuclear as Green AssetsBloomberg
My take: It’s unfortunate nuclear gets grouped with natural gas in stories like this (I’ve done it too!) because the two have totally different profiles when it comes to combatting climate change. The biggest selling point for nuclear power is precisely its climate benefits despite other concerns.

India says it will reach net-zero emissions by 2070. Can renewables meet the growing demand of more than 1 billion people?The Washington Post (paywall)
My take: A good story becomes a great story when reporters find just the right person to interview who personifies a challenge. Here, reporters Gerry Shih and Brady Dennis find a woman who has finally saved enough money to afford a home with appliances like air conditioners and TVs that most people in America and other more developed countries take for granted—except she has regular power outages.

Why Financing the Multi-Trillion-Dollar Transition to Net Zero Isn’t That HardThe Wall Street Journal
My take: This is a great column that puts into context the costs of going to net-zero emissions (and the caveats), particularly this line: “That Wall Street’s interest in sustainable finance is motivated by profit isn’t good or bad, it’s necessary.”

A Nuclear-Powered Shower? Russia Tests a Climate InnovationThe New York Times
My take: I wish this story would have addressed head on what (if any) safety/health risks come with taking a shower in water heated by nuclear power. It dances around the issue but doesn’t actually explain it.

UK, India plan to connect world's green power gridsReuters
My take: The benefits are clear: balancing out variable wind and solar is easier the larger the area you do it over. But the risks could be many: expensive, unpopular and perhaps most ominous, thousands of miles of power lines could be an obvious terrorist target or used manipulatively when geopolitics go sour.

Why John Hickenlooper didn't join 'Manchinema'Climate Wire
My take: An insightful read on the evolving politics in Colorado about one of its top politicians and the country when it comes to climate change and the role of oil companies.

More of what I'm reading:
  • Nigeria is oil rich and energy poor. It can't wait around for cheaper batteries CNN
  • Energy groups call for $3tn long duration storage push — Financial Times (paywall)
  • A lithium mine in my backyard? — Energy Wire
  • White House-Backed Carbon Tax in Sight for Biden’s Climate Bill — Bloomberg
A rapidly growing electricity system
Source: BloombergNEF
The amount of electricity capacity we need in a world reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is anywhere between four and nearly eight times more than what we have today, according to BloombergNEF.

The above chart shows total global electricity system size, categorized by three different scenarios BloombergNEF modeled that stipulates different primary energy sources for the world’s overall (not just electricity) energy mix.

Renewables, led by wind and solar, are actually the dominant electricity source in all three scenarios, underscoring the importance of building out wind and solar farms and their power lines.

In the scenarios labeled mostly renewables and mostly nuclear, hydrogen produced from these sources help reduce emissions in other sectors of the economy like manufacturing. In the third scenario, carbon capture is used both in power and in other energy sectors.

A carbon-free emergency
Itamar Weizman, a Cipher reader and partner and head of climate investments at Firstime Ventures, shared this photo of a hydrogen fuel cell electric ambulance from his COP26 attendance in Glasgow, Scotland.
Each week, I feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email me your ideas and photos:
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