In the rarified world of energy economists, academics and think tank policy gurus, there is a brewing clash of ideas of how best to achieve our necessarily ambitious decarbonization goals. All of these folks are well meaning, and want to get us through the impending energy transition in the most cost effective and rapid way. But two camps are forming, and which camp wins has major implications for all of us. On the one side are the self identified pragmatists. They consider themselves the energy policy insiders who understand all the complexities of the energy economy. On the other side are the idealists who see themselves as telling truth to power and showing how conventional thinking is missing the paradigm shift that the rapidly falling price of renewables has enabled.
The pragmatists believe that the only way for the world to achieve net zero and stay under the 1.5-2C threshold is to embrace an All-of-the-Above approach to energy policy. All-of-the-above means different things to different advocates of this approach, but generally it means continuing to burn fossil fuels for difficult to decarbonize industrial applications along with the last 10-20% of electricity production in order to keep the costs of producing electricity low and to provide baseload power for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Many pragmatists believe that we will need to deploy bridge technologies to pave the way for full decarbonization at a later date. Take for example the developing hydrogen economy. Pragmatists say we will need blue-hydrogen (hydrogen generated by burning natural gas) as a bridge to green hydrogen (hydrogen produced through the process of hydrolysis powered by renewable energy sources). In theory, carbon capture and sequestration would be combined with all of these technologies to make the burning of fossil fuels carbon neutral. In addition, nuclear can mean different things to different pragmatists, but all pragmatists believe we must preserve the existing fleet of nuclear plants, while others believe that we must not only preserve the existing fleet, but add to it with new nuclear plants based on the latest nuclear power technology.
This stands in contrast to the idealists who believe we can reach our net zero goals solely with renewables. They claim this can be achieved by rapidly “overbuilding” renewables so that even on days when the wind doesn’t blow, and the sun is low on the horizon and obscured by clouds there is enough energy to provide for our needs. This results in massive electricity overcapacity for the majority of days of the year (60% of days in New England and 90% of days in Texas and California) . They see this overcapacity as a blessing because it will provide the economy with low cost electricity that will allow us to decarbonize other sectors of the economy: transportation, buildings and industry. They have run the numbers for different regions of the U.S. and different regions of the world and come to the conclusion that this is the cleanest, cheapest, and fastest route to full decarbonization.
The Renewables-Only solution is appealing for its simplicity and for its relatively low environmental footprint. Because the Renewables-Only solution is so simple, there is a tendency for those of us not familiar with economic and energy policy minutia to dismiss this solution as naive. It seems to the uninitiated that the All-of-the-Above solution that recognizes that the world is complex and therefore requires complex solutions is more grounded in reality, but what if the idealists are right and the Renewables-Only solution will actually meet our needs? Wouldn’t it be preferable to implement a simpler, less expensive, more environmentally friendly solution?
So how do we resolve this dispute? Our view at Rebuild Climate is that the idealists’ approach is so straightforward that it should be the obligation of the pragmatists to prove the idealists wrong. Show us where the idealists' analysis is incorrect, and we’ll all fall in behind the All-of-the-Above solution because there is no practical alternative. But if you cannot rebut the Renewables-Only solution, then let’s stop talking about how we need to build thousands to millions of miles of additional pipelines to sequester carbon from industry, and let’s stop talking about building expensive nuclear plants and let’s get on with massively building out the Renewables-Only infrastructure of the future.
In the meantime, I suggest that you read two very convincing analyses by two different organizations in the idealist camp: RethinkX’s Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 and Rewiring America’s Handbook. These two reports do a nice job of explaining how an economy based solely on renewables could be achieved without resorting to the All-of-the-Above approach and as a nice side benefit would save households’ money and provide abundant energy. I should also mention that Mark Jacobson of Stanford University is a vocal proponent of the Renewables-Only solution. He hasn’t produced reports as quite as slick as the two above, but his materials are still quite interesting and informative.