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Energy Experts Weigh in on How to Manage the Energy Transition

By Erin Smith

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Bipartisan Policy Center recently hosted a broad cross-section of experts to discuss the changes underway for our nation’s energy system. BPC president Jason Grumet moderated the panel, which included David Hart, professor at George Mason University; Matthew Felling from Hill + Knowlton Strategies; Elgie Holstein from the Environmental Defense Fund; Shea Loper from Encana Oil and Gas (USA) Inc.; Susan Tierney from Analysis Group; and Jonathan Weisgall from Berkshire Hathaway Energy. The panelists discussed current trends in the U.S. energy sector and the challenges of meeting our energy, climate, and economic goals in a time where neither calls to “keep it in the ground” nor “drill baby drill” accurately reflect the approach necessary to decarbonize while still providing the energy our economy and everyday lives are built upon.  

The panelists began by discussing the implications of the election within the context of recent trends in the U.S. energy sector. Grumet noted that “on November 8 climate change was a global challenge that countries were…trying to engage” and in his view, “that was true on November 9 as well.” The group quickly agreed that while the election will likely give states a heightened role in energy and environmental decisions in the coming years, many aspects of the energy sector will not change because markets drive much of the activity. Holstein noted that “for the time being, markets will move us away from dirtier fuels and towards a cleaner energy future.” Loper agreed, stating that the election “changes the world a little bit, but so much is driven by markets and so much is going on in the states, it’s not like everything goes away tomorrow.” Weisgall also commented on the Clean Power Plan (CPP), saying that “regardless of whether the CPP gets knocked out by the courts or a new administration, a lot of trends are going to continue.” The group acknowledged that the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will remain, regardless of the incoming administration’s position on the issue. Felling noted that “the awareness over the past 10 to 20 years of where we need to go in the energy landscape has not changed.” Tierney also stressed that “carbon isn’t going away” and that “we won’t see investors betting on a high-carbon economy from the power sector side.”

Grumet noted that “on November 8 climate change was a global challenge that countries were…trying to engage” and in his view, “that was true on November 9 as well.”

Once the group concluded that the need to address climate change will persist, participants explored how to decarbonize our energy system in a way that balances competing needs and priorities. Tierney framed the discussion with a review of the existing literature on deep decarbonization, or the goal of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. She explained that many studies try to predict what our energy and technology portfolio will need to be by 2050 to meet this goal but that “the literature does not address how we get there practically.” She also critiqued some studies for assuming we can decarbonize by relying on a single fuel source, stressing that we will need a suite of options including fossil fuels and renewable energy to establish “an affordable decarbonized system.” The panel outlined a series of approaches to achieving decarbonization goals, including:

  • Invest in research and development
  • Adopt a broad energy and technology portfolio
  • Stop demonizing fuels and recognize the respective roles of fossil fuels and renewables in an energy future that will demand a diverse fuel mix
  • Consider the human impact of transforming the energy system
  • Collaborate locally, regionally, and internationally

Panelists had a variety of opinions on how decarbonization efforts should continue during the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, particularly the need to invest in research and development and adopt a broad energy and technology portfolio. Hart stressed the “need to invest more in R&D going forward” because “there is a limit to what you can do practically and we’re going to need options.” Grumet agreed and signaled R&D “could be a significant aspect of a Trump administration portfolio.” On this point, panelists identified the need for an all-of-the-above approach to energy to reach decarbonization goals and expressed optimism about doing so under Trump. Trump already indicated his support for fossil fuel development and Felling noted that natural gas in particular will be needed to get us “where we need to be by 2030 on emissions standards.” Felling agreed and noted that the US needs to better utilize existing pipelines and build new ones as needed to ensure the adequate and efficient use of our natural gas resources. Participants also noted that the economic benefits of clean energy and the necessary infrastructure to facilitate it could be quite persuasive to the new administration. Holstein noted that renewable energy “is a vital section of our economy now and as it grows, it also grows political power.” Weisgall agreed, noting that clean energy “produces jobs, infrastructure, and revenue” and that this could be a “powerful argument” to Trump. However, the group stressed that making these recommendations a reality would be challenging unless parties in support of different fuels actually came to the table. Grumet noted that policymakers often press for an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy but “imagine only part of the above,” and he stressed the need to truly pursue all forms of energy in order to meet decarbonization goals by 2050.

Policymakers often press for an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy but imagine only “part of the above.” 

This event was the first in a series of conversations on the changing energy sector. These future events will reflect the changing policy landscape and how these changes interact with our long-term energy and climate objectives. 

KEYWORDS: 2016, CLEAN POWER PLAN, DONALD TRUMP, JASON GRUMET, SUE TIERNEY