Is A Clean Energy US Economy By 2035 Realistic?

Posted on March 23rd, 2011 by

Dr. Michael Webber, of the University of Texas at Austin, discusses what needs to happen in order for the United States to reach Obama’s challenge of using 80% clean energy by 2035 and the role that Texas is playing in clean energy developments.

Full Transcript:

Ben Lack: I’m here with Dr. Michael Weber from the University of Texas at Austin. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Michael Webber : Thanks, my pleasure.
Ben Lack: I want to start talking you a little bit about, first, some of the research that you do. I know that you cover a lot of different areas. Can you highlight of some of the existing projects that you have and what you guys are studying?
Michael Webber : Sure. The things I do with my group is we do multi-disciplinary research. So, we weave in economics and policy into our engineering analysis. And, we’re looking at things like the relationship of energy in water, the relationship of energy in food, waste-to-energy, thermal electric generation, carbon capture, a little bio-fuels, solar, wind, storage, you name it. So, we got a lot of different projects.
Ben Lack: During President Obama’s State of the Union Address, one of the comments that he made was that he would really like to see the United States go to more a clean energy economy. He really wants 80% clean energy by 2035. I’m curious to get your thoughts on how realistic you think that actually could happen, and get some additional ideas on that.
Michael Webber : I love the ambition of going to a clean energy society. I think that’s great– a good goal for us to have. It’s definitely better than a goal of becoming a dirty energy society or maintaining a dirty energy society. So, I like that goal on the face. The details get trickier because you have to define what clean energy means, and whether or not we define natural gas and nuclear to be clean will affect whether we can achieve the goals.
Ben Lack: If we didn’t include natural gas and nuclear, what would have to happen in order for us to get there? Or is that even realistic?
Michael Webber : Well, if coal and petroleum, natural gas and nuclear are off the table, if they’re not considered clean, then that means our other resources are solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro. And it’s very hard to get that kind of scale we want in a formal way in time to meet those goals. So, it would be tricky to implement all those other renewable resources in a way that still gives us a reliable, economical, electrical systems or other liquid fuels energy system. So, it’s a challenge. But, if we include nuclear and natural gas — they’re already a substantial part of our fuel mix — it’s going to be easier to grow those probably against build something new from scratch.
Ben Lack: And many of our technology is there, it’s more that the policy is not as conducive as it could be to integrate those technologies. Would you agree with that statement?
Michael Webber : Most of the technology exists off the shelf today. If you want a low carbon domestic fuel mix, we could go all nuke, natural gas, solar, wind and geothermal and get there. But, it’s either that bad policy in the way, or bad economics or bad cultural responses. We either don’t like it or it’s too expensive or we have policies that accidentally block it or, in some cases, intentionally block it. So, you have a mix of non-technical factors that make it hard to de-carbonize our fuel mix today.
Ben Lack: And when you’re talking about policy, are the road blocks on the policy perspective really more on the federal side or the States doing what they are supposed to be doing and…
Michael Webber : There are policy roadblocks everywhere and there are cultural roadblocks everywhere, not just the federal government. The federal government has a lot of incentives. It helps for a lot of reasons but also has different accidental roadblocks. State levels are the same story. And it’s part of the problem because there are so many policy makers involved at every level. We have tens of thousands of cities, thousands of counties, fifty states, all have different policy apparati, all of which are having a hand at energy. And so, if they don’t have a unified sense, it will be very hard to get things done sometimes. So, there’s a federal government perspective that’s imperfect that can get in the way of the market’s working. And it’s also a way for them to get market work and they can use different policy levers. And then the markets themselves have a lot of imperfections. The market don’t like nuclear for example. Nuclear pays a heavy price for capital. So, there’s a variety of challenges and obstacles that must be overcome to really reach the whole energy system.
Ben Lack: Give us your thoughts on Texas as a state, maybe even a grade on what Texas is doing with regards to trying to become a clean energy state.
Michael Webber : Texas is doing more to green up the world than any other state by far. It’s also doing more to pollute the world than any other state by far. So, this is the dichotomy of Texas. If you look at our carbon emissions in Texas, we are by far the biggest carbon emitter in America, by far well ahead of California and New York, even if California has many more people. We have many more people in New York but not that many more. So, we’re a part of the problem. We’re major polluter and we consume that energy and let that pollution because we have very energy intensive set-up industries with petrochemicals and manufacturing, aerospace defence and cement. So, we’re part of the problem. But, we’re also part of the solution. A lot of there is bio-fuel pipelines that people want are built and operated by Texas companies. We’re the number one state for wind power by far in the nation, so we are de-carbonizing our grid. We built more natural gas than the other states by far, so we are de-carbonizing our grid yet again. We have a lot of low carbon solutions available in Texas as well as the carbon-intensive ones. So, we kind of have a mixed story for Texas. We’re the greenest state in the nation but also the blackest. And, which way we’re going to break in the future isn’t really obvious at this point.
Ben Lack: So, is Texas really just going to be the green and black state and everyone else is just going to take all the great work that Texas has done and just implement it into their own states?
Michael Webber : I think one good outcome for Texas would be if every other state followed us and adopted our technologies and hired our people and sort of recruited our engineers to help them bring up their state. As it turns out, one thing gets to know how to do these larger noble systems at scale, and some states are having trouble with that. So we definitely have to watch those systems, naturally.

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