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Energy clean sweep

Powering the massive deployment of a low-carbon technology mix

Winter 2016 | By Meghan Lepisto


Global warming has the energy sector in an innovation arms race, demanding adaptations along two fronts: those prompted by the effects of climate change, and those needed to limit climate change.

The latter, says Greg Nemet, an associate professor of environmental studies and public affairs, will require the strongest force.

“Meeting even the less ambitious goals agreed upon by the United Nations in December in Paris implies a near complete decarbonization of energy in developed countries by mid-century, and for the entire world by the end of the century,” he says, referring to the landmark accord approved by 196 countries at the 2015 World Climate Change Conference (COP21).

“Meeting even the less
ambitious goals agreed
upon by the UN in
December implies a near
complete decarbonization
of energy in developed
countries by mid-century,
and for the entire world
by the end of the century.”

This global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions calls for limiting the increase in the global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – a point scientists have identified as the threshold for averting the most devastating effects of climate change – with a more aggressive target to contain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Domestically, recent regulations announced by the Obama administration and Environmental Protection Agency – namely, a lower federal ozone standard and the Clean Power Plan, which requires states to curb power plant carbon dioxide emissions by a cumulative 32 percent by 2030 – also carry immense implications for energy markets and technology (and impending legal challenges; 27 states and an array of industry groups have filed more than a dozen cases to block the Clean Power Plan, and as of press time the U.S. Supreme Court has halted the rule’s implementation while it is under review at the U.S. Court of Appeals).

“The issue of carbon dioxide emissions is definitely going to reshape a lot of important connections between the energy sector, the transportation sector, consumers, and air management organizations,” environmental studies Professor Tracey Holloway said last summer ahead of the Energy Summit she chaired on campus, hosted by the Wisconsin Energy Institute, which drew attendees from industry, academia, nonprofits and regulatory agencies to discuss ways to reduce emissions without disrupting the economy. “It’s a transformation that’s already happening – decisions are already being made, laws are already being passed, permits are already being applied for – so the time to work together is now.”



So, what will this transformation entail, to decarbonize the energy system?

Nemet, who studies links between energy technology and public policy, envisions the future will include a much more diverse set of means from which to derive energy services. It will require a transition from a fossil fuel-based system with heavy environmental impacts to one that primarily utilizes low- and zero-carbon renewable sources like wind, solar and other as-yet-unknowns – combined with energy conservation and carbon capture and storage.

“It seems likely we will
have a period of transition
during which many promising
ideas will be tried. We won’t
know until later which ones
will work best and where
and for whom, and some
probably don’t even exist yet.”

Renewable sources, including biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind, currently account for about 10 percent of energy consumed in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates. Specific to electricity generation – the energy sector’s largest source of carbon emissions – in 2014 about 67 percent of U.S. electricity came from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum), 19 percent from nuclear power, 6 percent from hydropower and 7 percent from other renewable sources. Globally, renewables account for about 23 percent of electricity generation.

Also key to consider: By 2050, global energy demand is expected to double as the projected human population reaches nearly 9 billion. The world must now simultaneously maximize energy benefits and minimize environmental degradation.

“The changes implied by the UN agreement, and already planned on by nearly 200 countries, are so fundamental that it seems likely we will have a period of transition, perhaps for a couple of decades and perhaps quite chaotic, during which many promising ideas will be tried,” Nemet says. “We won’t know until later which ones will work best and where and for whom, and some probably don’t even exist yet.”


Quick take: Energy challenges, solutions and successes

Tisha Schuller, an environmental scientist and member of the Nelson Institute Board of Visitors, consults private clients in energy policy, business strategy, politics and community engagement. She previously served as president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

Tisha Schuller
Tisha Schuller

An advocate for “deescalating the energy wars,” Schuller shared her take on today’s energy landscape.

What do you see as the most critical emerging energy issues? 

The most pressing challenge is the hyper-polarization and partisan divides that exist on energy issues. These prevent genuine discussion and debate about what the problems are, how they should be prioritized, and where we can craft realistic policy solutions. Without dialogue, there is no possibility for progress.

Where are solutions likely to be found?

Technology innovation and the marketplace have created the energy abundance and affordability that we currently enjoy and that have raised millions of people out of poverty. We still have 1.4 billion people on this planet that require access to energy, and we must continue to innovate and provide energy access.

Do particular successes come to mind that we might build upon?

Absolutely! At no time in human history have humans had it so good, largely thanks to abundant affordable energy. When someone living in poverty is given access to energy, birth rates fall, life expectancy increases, and all kinds of great societal improvements are possible. Prioritizing access to energy around the world will allow us to address global prosperity and sustainability with more empowered (literally) world citizens.


Technologies in the carbon-cutting tool chest

While the long-term impacts of the global climate accord signed in Paris, and individual nation’s carbon-cutting commitments, aren’t yet known – and likely cannot halt global warming independently – the uniting of nearly every country to cut greenhouse gas emissions has already triggered one immediate effect: a signal of market momentum, spurring record investments in clean energy spending.

More than a dozen countries, including emissions heavyweights China, India, Saudi Arabia and the United States, and 20-plus private investors, led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, announced $20 billion in funding for energy research and development at the UN climate summit.

Last year also saw record investments in clean energy installations – $329 billion spent globally toward renewable power capacity in 2015, according to the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance – even amid low fossil fuel prices. Sixty-four gigawatts of wind capacity and 57 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity were installed around the world last year, a 30 percent increase over 2014 and an indication of the technology’s increasing cost-competitiveness.

In the United States, renewables were the biggest source of new power added to the electrical grid in 2015. This breakout demand is expected to continue as Congress recently granted multiyear extensions to several renewable energy investment tax credits, reducing net installation costs.

Nemet, who has studied how different public policy scenarios affect solar technology development and the cost of climate change mitigation, says stunning drops in the price of solar photovoltaic systems, along with new business models that make photovoltaics even more affordable and preferences for the unique attributes of solar, are also driving the industry’s growth. More than 7 gigawatts of solar power generation were installed in the United States last year; Wisconsin, for its part, added an unprecedented 7 megawatts, enough to power more than 1,000 homes.

He believes this combined international drive behind clean energy was critical ahead of the UN climate summit. “Part of the reason Paris produced a real agreement – in addition to increasing concern about [climate change], tremendous preparation beforehand, and then skillful diplomacy during – is broad optimism that addressing the problem is getting more feasible,” Nemet says.

This optimism is justified, he says, because low-carbon energy is showing potential in an array of areas: from breakthroughs in electric vehicles to new energy materials, and from improvements in energy storage to better conductors for electricity transmission to advances in absorbing carbon emissions.

UW-Madison researchers are studying many of these methods of energy production, storage and transport, developing promising solutions that balance environmental impact, cost and accessibility. Their list of innovations includes coaxing sunlight into greater energy yields, utilizing battery power more efficiently, engineering microbes that can better convert plant biomass to energy, and reducing the energy footprint of motor technology.

“Low-carbon technology is improving rapidly, far faster than almost anyone expected,” Nemet says. “And models are emerging – not theoretical ones, but in real-life places – in which people are living a high quality of life with a relatively low carbon footprint.”



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