Valerie Eliasen, MJLST Staffer
Climate change is perhaps the most serious threat to our planet’s future. From a rise in average temperatures to more frequent floods, fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, the evidence of a warming planet is clear. Scientists warn that climate change and its dangerous effects will continue to worsen unless a strong response to counteract the threats is undertaken immediately. In response to these worries and widespread support of the issue by consumers, numerous large corporations have begun setting goals to combat climate change.
The Biden administration has also prioritized the issue. Among his first acts in office, President Biden signed an executive order, which acted to “place the climate crisis at the forefront of [the] Nation’s foreign policy and national security planning.” Among many other things, Biden’s executive order created a new position to “elevate the issue of climate change” and directed the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement. The executive order includes a goal to “achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050” and “a carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035.”
To achieve such a lofty goal, businesses and corporations across the country will need to rapidly change how they do business. It’s easy to see that single use plastics will begin to disappear and that electric vehicles will become more commonplace, but what will the shift to cleaner energy look like?
California provides us with an interesting case study. California is well known for its aggressive and progressive approach to climate change. The State established a detailed climate plan in 2006, which outlines the ways in which the State will reduce emissions and emphasize clean energy in the long run. While a deeper look at California’s experience with aggressive climate policy over the past few years can help us envision what the United States’ increasingly electric future will look like, it provides us with some warnings as well.
The first problem is capacity. Because California’s renewable energy sources primarily come from solar and wind generation, a huge problem is presented when the sun doesn’t shine, the wind slows down, and backup resources aren’t available. In August 2020, when extreme heat hit the southwest, California didn’t have enough of its own energy to power its residents’ air conditioners. Further, the states California often borrows energy from in cases of shortage were experiencing the same heat wave and did not have resources to spare. The result: the first rolling blackouts in close to 20 years. Much of California’s problem lies in its ability to provide energy after the sun sets. The technology to efficiently store energy for later use is not developed enough to provide the kind of storage needed. Further, several of California’s fossil fuel plants have been retired in recent years and haven’t been replaced with enough non-solar energy sources. With increasingly hotter summers and insufficient sources of consistent energy, blackouts are likely to reoccur.
The second problem is the grid. With the United States’ new emissions goals and continued societal shift towards combatting climate change, we are likely to see a large shift to electric appliances and vehicles. Additionally, the use of air-conditioning could increase nearly 60 percent by 2050 due to the planet’s warming temperatures. As such, the power grids are going to need to be able to handle more variable sources of energy and increased demand of electricity in the coming years. The power grids in place in many regions of the United States are not cut out for these changes. California, for example, has the “least reliable electrical power system in the US . . . with more than double the outages of any other state over the last decade” and will likely only become more unreliable as clean energy sources are phased in and others are phased out. The power industry is going to need to invest countless dollars into making power grids more flexible and robust than what we have now. One article likens this process to rebuilding a plane mid-flight.
The nation’s new environmental goals are a vital and important step in combating climate change. Inaction is not an option. Failure is not an option. And thankfully, President Biden’s executive order has the force of law, so the government will be better able to make sure these goals are met. But unless policymakers understand that many of the recent issues in California were caused by poor planning and poor coordination between policymakers and energy producers, California’s reality will become a nationwide problem. The government and the States need to work closely with the power industry, to invest a large amount of money into improving and strengthening the grid, and to expand the amount of renewable energy available day and night. This may be the only way to keep the lights on while helping the planet stay cool.