Tucker Perkins is the president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council and host of the Path to Zero podcast. The council is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that invests in the research and development of propane-powered innovation.
Since the Inflation Reduction Act was enacted into federal policy last year, news media coverage of its impacts has slowed to a trickle. It’s as if a wand was waved, the political checkbox was checked, and attentions have moved on to the next catastrophe. The issue of carbon emissions is fixed, isn’t it?
Not even close. The wane in coverage and conversation exposes, once again, our short attention spans.
The climate change challenge, however, is more than an attention gap. The more pressing problem is the country’s electricity supply gap — and not in the sustainable and ethical investing sense. It is this gap that sits between us and sustained progress on carbon emission reductions.
Electric grid reliability and resiliency issues aren’t new. Eight years ago, the Department of Energy reported that 70% of the country’s transformers and transmission power lines were at least 25 years old, while 60% of circuit breakers were at least 30 years old. What is new is the precipitous decline in the power generation capability of the entire system.
PJM Interconnection, the grid operator in 13 Northeast states providing power to 65 million Americans, recently sent up the alarm on this subject. They forecast a large decline in power generation as coal and natural gas plants are being forced to close due to federal agency requirements and ESG (the original kind) commitments coming at a pace more quickly than new or intermittent generation can be built. The calculations show that over 20% of PJM’s current generation capacity — enough to light up 30 million households — is at risk of retiring by 2030.
The Department of Energy believes a big answer to our electricity supply gap problem is to build more high-voltage transmission lines, so different regions of the country can share power when demand surges. That concept comes with a price tag of several trillion dollars by midcentury, though, and contentious local opposition to landscape-changing projects — high-voltage transmission lines included — remains seriously challenging.
When he was stranded on Mars in the movie “The Martian,” Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, confronted with an array of life-or-death choices, says to his video diary camera, “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option, I’m gonna have to science the (expletive) out of this.” That’s a great line, isn’t it? That’s what we need to do. We are inside of a world-scale energy transformation flex-point, where innovation of every sort, all aimed in the same direction toward a net zero carbon future, is essential.
To many folks inside their homes, the source of their electrical power doesn’t matter much. What matters is that we can, and are, innovating to bring clean, reliable and affordable energy to them in every corner of our country. PJM’s report should shake us all into accepting that the grid cannot be the sole solution to climate change. Instead, a diverse mix of low-carbon and reliably available energies are the most practical path to a net zero future.