Op-ed: The Right Way to Shape Our Low-Carbon Future

Recently, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) presented a plan to eliminate carbon emissions in the country by 2050. The bill would implement a national renewable energy standard, similar to renewable portfolio standards that currently exist in 35 states and the District of Columbia. The goal of these standards is to ramp up renewable energy production until it accounts for a certain percentage of total energy production.

While renewables will certainly play a role in our low-carbon future, they aren’t our only option for reducing carbon emissions. Improvements in wind and solar have made both technologies more cost-effective than ever. But ambitious goals such as 100 percent elimination of carbon emissions will require groundbreaking innovation over the coming decades, above and beyond what wind and solar are already doing for carbon reduction. If regulation favors specific energy sources, this can hinder or completely eliminate the development of other viable carbon-reducing energy options that may also play a critical role in our low-carbon future.

Think about cutting carbon emissions like losing weight. If you wanted to get into shape, you could go to the gym and do nothing but run on a treadmill all day. But that won’t be nearly as effective as combining running with a comprehensive plan that includes a healthier diet, weight lifting and changing daily habits such as taking the stairs or riding your bike to work.

Setting a goal for 100 percent renewable energy production by 2050 is a lot like telling people they can only exercise on a treadmill. Sure, they may ultimately hit their goals, but why not allow them to use every tool necessary to do so?

Rather than relying on specific technologies to decarbonize the energy sector, policymakers should instead embrace any technology that will help achieve that goal.

Renewable mandates aim to reduce carbon emissions but often exclude any technology that doesn’t qualify as explicitly renewable, including nuclear, closed-cycle natural gas, and carbon capture and storage. Focusing on existing technologies reduces the incentive for innovators to develop new, better technologies to reduce carbon emissions unless they can be classified as renewable. That is despite the fact that nonrenewable technology, both current and future, can provide the same carbon-free energy as renewable sources while also offsetting some of their limitations like variability and geographic dependence.

Nuclear energy, for example, was a key focus in a recent study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative. Researchers examined various decarbonization scenarios to understand the costs and challenges of achieving high levels of decarbonization. They found that having a diverse energy portfolio that included nuclear power provided significant benefits in major decarbonization efforts.

If proposed legislation like Udall’s national renewable mandate does become law, state-mandated renewable standards can give us some insight into what a path to 100 percent renewable energy might look like. Even as decreasing costs have lead to growth for renewables like wind and solar, costs for electricity have risen in states where renewable mandates exist.

Brian Murray, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative, notes that much of this cost increase is driven by supplemental costs for renewables in addition to generation, including transmission and distribution, maintenance and reliability costs to keep voltage stable for these intermittent technologies.

A report from the Center for Growth and Opportunity cites a number of studies that find renewable mandates lead to increases in electricity prices without reliably achieving their goals. One study published by the Energy Policy Center at the University of Chicago found that 12 years after a state implemented a renewable mandate, the average cost of electricity increased by 17 percent while the share of renewable energy increased just 4.2 percentage points. If you consider that the average U.S. monthly electricity bill is about $112, that 17 percent increase is the equivalent of having to pay two extra electricity bills every year.

There is good reason to believe that continued improvements in renewable technology and battery storage will eventually be able to reduce these costs. But tackling an issue as large and as serious as climate change will require a more flexible, innovative approach.

Limiting our energy portfolio to renewable-only energy technology backs us into a corner and reduces our options for achieving the ultimate goal of dramatically reducing carbon emissions. Rather, we should utilize all technologies available to us, renewable or not, to build the best possible energy future for this country.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.