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April 25, 2019

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Energy, climate expert says there’s reason for optimism — despite Trump

Donald Trump

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Donald Trump speaks about the U.S. role in the Paris climate change accord, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

As an environmental engineer and an expert in energy policy, Samantha Gross is no fan of climate-change deniers who see no reason to reduce greenhouse gases.

But Gross, a Brookings Institution fellow in foreign policy, also takes issue with far-left activists who tout solar and wind energy as an easy answer to global warming.

The answer to climate change and energy is complicated, Gross said, and lies somewhere deep between those extremes. One size doesn’t fit all, as renewable energy works better in some places than others and all sources have some negative effect on the environment.

“Nobody wants to deal with the complicated middle where we’re going to have to find ways to change the giant energy system to make it run differently,” she said.

Click to enlarge photo

Samantha Gross, a Brookings Institution fellow in foreign policy, energy security and climate initiative, will present a lecture at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, at UNLV.

Tonight at UNLV, Gross will discuss the complexities of global climate policy and the effects of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of President Barack Obama’s efforts to curb global warming. Her hourlong lecture, titled “Paris Agreement 101,” is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Greenspun Hall and is open to the public.

Gross, a former U.S. Department of Energy administrator, sat down Tuesday with the Sun to preview her presentation and discuss topical issues on climate change, renewable energy and more. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

Let’s start with the news last week that President Donald Trump planned to rescind the Clean Power Plan. What do you see as the ramifications of that?

It was clearly going to happen, based on campaign promises and based on the kind of folks in EPA. But the thing that’s interesting about repealing the Clean Power Plan is the EPA is (legally) required to regulate greenhouse gases and CO2. So in this process of repealing or pulling back the Clean Power Plan, they haven’t suggested anything to replace it. So you have 20-odd states who are suing against the Clean Power Plan. The other 20-odd states are now going to sue because the Clean Power Plan was pulled back. So this is going to end up being a little bit of a legal food fight.

And what’s going to be interesting to watch is what the administration does next. They have to do something, but will they propose something quite weak? Will they slow walk?

As far as the emissions implications of it, it’s going to make a difference state by state. Some states have state policies (to reduce CO2) or don’t have a lot of coal anyway, so they weren’t going to be that constrained by the Clean Power Plan, whereas in others it will probably make a difference.

So it depends on the kind of electricity generation mix that states started with how much of a difference it will make that it’s not there.

In a recent editorial, the New York Times argued that abandoning the Clean Power Plan was senseless not only ecologically but economically. Do you agree?

I do generally agree with that. I think the arguments that rescinding the Clean Power Plan will be a boon for the economy are not honest. You’re definitely seeing decreases in costs of renewable energy — in solar and wind. You’re seeing solar and wind technology improve such that there are other ways to provide some of the grid services that big power plants provide — things like keeping voltage steady.

I say this everywhere I go: The EPA had almost nothing to do with killing coal. Two things have killed coal and coal jobs. One is really cheap natural gas — the shale gas revolution has resulted in natural gas prices that are way lower than anyone expected a few years ago. And the thing that’s really killed coal jobs is mechanization. You can mine a lot more coal per worker than you used to. So even if coal demand were to increase, you wouldn’t necessarily bring all those jobs back.

That’s a very frustrating part of this. You look at the Trump administration and its promises to coal miners, and I get that people — especially in Appalachia — are hurting. But I don’t think promising to bring coal back is an honest way to help those people, because I don’t think it can be done.

When Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement, you described it as a “really sad day.” Why?

There was really no need for us to withdraw from Paris. It was kind of a pointless exercise.

If you look at the way the Paris accord was structured, the goals that the different countries set and brought to Paris are not binding. We didn’t absolutely, die-hard promise we’d do those things; that was just what we said we were going to try to do. So it just didn’t need to happen.

One of the other things that I found really sad, particularly in the talk that President Trump gave in the Rose Garden, is that he reopened a lot of issues that were really problematic in past climate agreements and that Paris was structured to get around.

He said multiple times, China doesn’t have to do anything, and China can run coal plants and we can’t, those sorts of statements. And that reopened some of the old developed vs. developing world, developed countries vs. lesser developed countries. And that was really what made Kyoto problematic and replacing Kyoto problematic.

I’ll talk about this Wednesday night, but both sides had reasonable arguments. Nobody was wrong, it’s just that the Earth doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter who’s right, we just have something we have to do.

So there had been movement toward the middle.

There was. And what happened at Paris, which is what really changed the thinking and the underlying structure of international climate agreements, is that instead of it being top-down, they said each country will bring what it can do. They established what were called Nationally Determined Contributions. They were all structured differently. Some of them were just, “We’ll reduce our emissions’ intensity,” some of them were, “We’ll absolutely reduce our emissions by this much.” They all came in different flavors, but they added them together and that became the Paris agreement. So it was BYOG (bring your own goals.)

So a combination of that and the fact they were nonbinding made it possible for 195 countries to sign on, which is remarkable.

But the combination of those things — tell us what you can do, and we’re going to hold you to monitoring and reporting what you’re doing, but we’re not going to hold you to your goals — that made for something everyone could sign. And it was completely different from what the world had done before.

At the National Clean Energy Summit last week here in Las Vegas, Al Gore expressed optimism that the U.S. would meet its Paris goals despite Trump’s action. Are you as optimistic?

I think the goals are going to be challenging. The Clean Power Plan was one of the signature policies to allow us to meet those goals, and having us pull back is going to be a problem.

Some states will meet the goals and go further, and some will not without nudging.

The wild card would be cost of renewables and whether it will continue to come down.

And that is the factor he cited, largely.

If that continues to happen, and if you can come up with cost-effective grid-scale storage, then everything changes. That gets rid of some of the intermittency (in power supply). The problem now is you have to have fossil fuel plants in reserve to cover when it’s dark or when it’s not windy.

But you’ve raised a caution flag regarding those who suggest that by 2050 we can fairly easily or cheaply switch over to completely wind and solar energy. Why do you think that’s far-fetched?

The idea of limiting yourself to a small number of technologies — we’re only going to do wind, solar and water — why would you do that? What we’re doing right now is working on a lot of technologies and how far we can push them and what we can do most cheaply. Different technologies are going to work better in different places. And so limiting yourself to wind and solar, I kind of have to roll my eyes to that.

Cost-effective storage is the grail. If somebody cracks that nut sooner rather than later, you can get the rollout faster.

Right now, it’s just expensive. You think about how much battery you need for a phone versus how much you need for a car, and it starts getting expensive at the car scale. Then you scale that up to grid-scale storage, and you’re talking a lot of batteries and it gets really expensive.

What other kind of technologies should we be exploring more?

In the U.S., we’re in a little bit of a bad place on nuclear development.

But there’s a lot of effort going into development here and around the world on smaller, more modular reactors, and that has some potential. Not everybody loves nuclear power, but as a steady, carbon-free source of electricity I don’t think we should count it out.

That’s a tough sell in Nevada, because of Yucca Mountain.

The waste is a real bear.

You know, obviously, if there was a free lunch on all this, we’d be eating it. I mean, what do we do with nuclear waste versus can we deal with the carbon?

Well, take lithium mining for batteries. That has an impact, too, in water usage and potential environmental damage, right?

Right. And if you look at a concentrated solar plant, you have to cool that, and that’s significant water use.

I feel like on this issue, the more you know the more questioning you become and the more you realize you don’t know.

I see a lot of young activists out there, and I love them and love their energy, but on the other hand there’s this thought of “This is so easy, and why don’t you just do this?” And I wish that were the case — really I do.

It’s a fascinating issue, because I see two sides of things and I have major problems with both. On the one side, you see climate deniers, including a lot of people in our administration. This isn’t a real problem, it’s going to kill our economy, it’s not something we should be dealing with. But then on the far other side you hear, this is easy, why don’t we just talk about wind and solar, and only reason we’re not doing this is the fossil fuel lobby. And those people are damaging, too. They’re not helping the argument, either, when the solution is in the middle.

And I feel that far-lefty argument kind of takes the personal responsibility out of it. If it’s ExxonMobile’s fault, then it’s not mine. I don’t like that, because it’s all of our fault. I mean, I flew here, and I rented a car because it’s the easiest way to get around.

Nobody wants to deal with the complicated middle that we’re going to have to find ways to change the giant energy system to make it run differently, to make our activities go differently.

So knowing what you know — or maybe knowing what you don’t know — how optimistic are you?

I’ll answer your question in two different directions.

The one direction is there won’t be a U.S. hole. There are all these things going on in the U.S. that aren’t happening at the federal level. They’re not our official representatives to the Paris process, but they’re out there. They’re cooperating with their counterparts in other countries and within the U.S., which is great.

So it’s not like all activity in the U.S. stopped.

My other avenue of optimism is that the Paris agreement’s in place, and we’ve had the world agree on directionally what we ought to do. It doesn’t get us all the way to where we need to be, but it’s something — and that’s huge. We’ve set aside the old, nasty fight of developing vs. developed world for the most part. And what you’re seeing now is the development of smaller groups who are really working on specific issues. And that’s where progress is going to happen. The U.N. isn’t going to mandate some sort of renewable energy target. But smaller groups of people can do experiments and really learn how things work.

What will be some of the key points in your presentation?

One of the things I haven’t talked about, which I think I’ll open the talk with, is why is climate change so hard?

I work with an international organization called the Hartwell Group, and one of the guys at the head of that group describes this as a “wicked” problem. And I really like that description. Because if you were to sit down and design a public policy problem, you couldn’t make one that was much worse.

It strikes at the very heart of the modern economy. It’s everything we do. So you have to make strong steps now that have clear costs but have uncertain benefits in the future. The costs are here and now, the benefits are diffuse and later.

And then you have the problem that climate change doesn’t fit well into the political cycle. We have two-, four- and six-year cycles here in the U.S., and it doesn’t mesh well in the time frames in which politicians are elected. Which makes it very hard. They can say, “We’re going to make this improvement for our kids and our grandkids,” but politicians don’t get elected for people’s kids and grandkids, they’re elected to solve bread-and-butter issues now.

Then you add this war of the worlds thing with the developed vs. developing world. The developing world says, “You created the problem,” which is true, and the developed world says, “Well, you’re the future of the problem,” which is also true.

So no easy answers tonight?

I think it’s important to examine why the situation is so complicated. You know, there are solar panels on this building (Greenspun Hall) — so the people who come here may say, “Why doesn’t everybody do that, and we’ll be done?”

Well, there are certain sectors that are more difficult. And when we go deeper and deeper, it’s going to get harder and harder.

I’ll also talk a little about why am I more and less troubled about the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of Paris. I’m far more troubled on the international front than the domestic front. I think it’s horrible for our reputation abroad. You look at other deals we might want to do — trade deals, maybe, or North Korea. We don’t look like a reliable partner. Would you do a deal with us? We’re reneging on all kinds of deals.

On the domestic front, we’re OK. A lot of people care, and things are happening. And we have one of the best research and development sectors in the world, which is not necessarily thinking on a four-year cycle. So that stuff all continues.

What didn’t I ask that I should have?

The one thing I worry about with the administration, and which I try to tell every audience I talk to everywhere, is early research and development. If you look at what the federal government is well-suited to do, early research and development. That’s a very natural, central government function, from an economic and technical point of view. You think about innovative companies, they’ll take technology and run with it. But that really early stage, it’s too risky for companies to do and it’s also very difficult if they make a major science breakthrough to capture all the value from it. So private industry’s just not good at that. Universities do it. Things like the national labs do it. And a lot of the money for those projects is federal.

Ernest Moniz (former Energy secretary) mentioned the same concern last week at the National Summit of Clean Energy.

Ernie’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I’m in 100 percent agreement. If I look at what I want to make sure the administration continues, that basic R&D, we have to continue doing that. It would be a horrendous shame, not just for the climate but for our economy if we stopped doing that.

It’s what we’re good at.

Where are we on that funding?

I saw some bad signs at the beginning, but I don’t think they’re necessarily going to happen. Like, you look at the skinny budget that came out months ago, and it was horrifying. They took a lot of things out of the budget, particularly for the Department of Energy. They did some defunding for various national labs; they completely defunding ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), which is an early stage energy funding mechanism founded on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which invented the internet. So that’s crazy. But I don’t think Congress wants that to happen, and I don’t think it will.

But support for that early stage science, we have to keep doing that.

Once commercial potential from this early stage science becomes clear, somebody will grab it and run with it. Google didn’t invent the internet; DARPA did. But once it became clear that money can be made from it, people will be all over it.