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Securing a sustainable energy transition is focus of Andlinger Center meeting

December 2, 2020

By Molly A. Seltzer

Cities and states will play a key role in efforts to address climate change but they will not be able to solve the challenge without strong leadership from the federal government, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, former U.S. deputy energy secretary, said at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment’s Annual Meeting last month. Delivering her keynote address to a virtual audience, Sherwood-Randall, who served in the Obama administration’s energy department, said federal leadership could create a transformative effort that fully integrates clean energy, climate, economic, and national security goals. But achieving that goal will require fully involving all stakeholders from industry, government, academia, and nonprofit organizations.

“We cannot generate accelerated, sustainable change in our massive energy system without doing the hard work of building broad coalitions,” said Sherwood-Randall.

At the center’s ninth Annual Meeting on October 30, Sherwood-Randall was one of several leaders who discussed expanding the role of sustainable and affordable electricity in the economy to power everything from buildings to transportation. Now a Distinguished Professor of the Practice at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she said improving energy efficiency, investing in innovation, modernizing the power grid, and strengthening domestic and international partnerships will be key to meeting climate goals.

In her address, Sherwood-Randall called for increasing federal investment in national laboratories and research universities to get technologies on track for deployment. She argued that such investment would help expand the number of students that pursue science and technology careers and lay the foundation for a transformed energy system that integrates technologies such as carbon capture and storage, clean hydrogen, long-term battery storage, and an expanded cross-state “super grid.”

The keynote, which was introduced by Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering, was followed by two discussions. In one panel Vincent Poor, the Michael Henry Strater University Professor of Electrical Engineering, spoke with security experts about threats to the power grid and ways to protect against them. The second was a conversation between chief executives from electric utilities who discussed the future of the industry and ways in which the government and private sector could cooperate to meet the challenge of climate change.

Speaking to fellow utility leaders, Ralph Izzo, president and chief executive officer of PSEG, parent company to New Jersey’s largest electric and gas utility, agreed that government could play a significant role in incentivizing the deployment of clean technology by pricing carbon and supporting research on technologies that will help decarbonize society beyond the electric sector. In a conversation moderated by Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Izzo, a former research scientist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, noted that the economic case for clean energy technologies varies by region. In discussion with the CEOs of Xcel Energy and the New York Power Authority, he said disparate and intersecting policy regimes, like carbon pricing limited to certain regions within an electric territory, as is the case with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (REGGI) in the electric territory of PJM, distort markets. This often leads to economically irrational decision making, like investing in rooftop solar in New Jersey, at a cost of approximately $400/ton of carbon eliminated, compared to massively supporting energy efficiency, which yields $125 of economic value for every ton of carbon dioxide prevented from entering the atmosphere.

Izzo advocated for an economy-wide price on carbon, which would send the same market signals to everyone—not just to power producers, but also to automobile manufacturers, industrial furnace builders, and shipping companies—to indicate the most cost-efficient technology available to provide clean, reliable energy.

Ben Fowke, chairman and CEO of Xcel Energy, said carbon and electric transition policies would be better if they were designed to invest in innovation and incentivize emissions-free electricity. He said policymakers must ensure there are no loopholes that would encourage those who can afford to generate their own clean power to do so at the expense of those who stay on the traditional grid.

Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority (NYPA), said dispersing the benefits of the clean energy transition is now codified into New York law, which states that 35% of the benefits of future clean energy investment must go to underserved communities.

The three CEOs also reiterated Sherwood-Randall’s sentiment about social justice and the need to keep power affordable. This ensures that the energy transition does not further burden the country’s most financially strapped and allows other sectors an affordable pathway to electrify. The Net-Zero America Project, a Princeton University research project whose results are forthcoming, investigates the cost and pathways to decarbonization, and specifically lays out the impacts of a clean energy transition on  communities throughout the United States on a state by state basis.

As end uses, like transportation and cooking, transition to be powered by electricity instead of oil and gas, concerns arise about whether the high-wattage smart electric appliances could be manipulated to compromise the grid. Prateek Mittal, associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University discussed a number of types of attacks in the panel discussion focused on cyber security with experts from Siemens Corporate Technology, the Information Trust Institute, and MIT. Mittal said not only could the Internet of Things (IoT) botnets potentially disrupt the grid by manipulating hundreds of thousands of devices at the same time in a given area, causing problems like blackouts, but hackers could also provide bad data upon which automated systems would base decisions. The experts said that increased security measures around IoT are needed. They asserted that protection will require a continuum and evolving set of solutions that cannot be tied to a specific type of power technology, but rather, assessed on a systemic level.

They agreed that microgrids present opportunities for security and increasing the resilience of the power grid by isolating problems and operating the microgrids in “island mode,” or disconnected from the central grid. But, the speakers said, microgrids could also amplify the risk of attacks by increasing the points of entry to the power system and the complexity of the electric system as a whole.

“It will require a lot of careful studies and not only by the engineering community, but also the policymakers and regulators, to allow microgrids to be basically support structures because it’s really flipping the grid inside out,” said Anu Anuradha Annaswamy, founder and director of the Active-Adaptive Control Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

In her closing statement, Sherwood-Randall emphasized the need for these various sectors and parts of the country to come together to bring innovations to market and carry out a plan to make the power sector secure, reliable, affordable, and clean.

“The climate crisis and its interwoven security implications present a challenge unlike anything we have ever faced as a planet,” Sherwood-Randall said.

She said the country needs to spearhead an audacious systematic effort that brings the country together in a way that has not been done since the second world war.

“Then, as now, we were late to enter the fight, but we ultimately provided the necessary leadership to win it and, together, we can do so again,” said Sherwood-Randall.

Corporations and Industry in the Race to Net-Zero Emissions: The Andlinger Center 2021 Annual Meeting will be held on Wednesday, October 27, 2021 from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.Register now
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