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December 5, 2019

Leading in the Era of Decarbonization

The urgency surrounding decarbonization continues to grow as business leaders, academics and experts from nongovernmental organizations grapple with issues related to public understanding of energy, perceptions of technologies and other domestic and global challenges. Successful decarbonization and the reestablishment of U.S. leadership on this issue require a commitment from and engagement with all stakeholders.

All energy technologies are needed to decarbonize the grid and economy.

The technology exists to decarbonize electricity generation and the economy more broadly, but the path to a carbon-free future needs to be determined in the context of the infrastructure and grid system that exists today. A genuine commitment to considering an all-of-the-above technology approach is missing from many decarbonization discussions, which continue to be dominated by the perceived need to choose a “winner.” This mindset, which plagues both technologies that exist today and those in development, dismisses the unique contributions of different energy technologies and how they can work together to make real progress toward a carbon-free future.

This singular focus isn’t unique to discussions of electricity generation technologies. Storage technologies are important to successful decarbonization but face a similar challenge. There are geographic regions that can go long periods without significant sun or wind, meaning that the use of some renewable energy sources in those areas will depend on robust storage technologies.

When it comes to battery storage technologies, current development efforts largely focus on lithium-ion batteries because, at least so far, they have been perceived as the “winner.” This mindset has the potential to limit the development of other potentially viable technologies.

Abundance as a Guide for Making Smart Energy Choices

An all-of-the-above approach is important to enabling communities to choose the combination of technologies that best meets their needs. However, there are a variety of factors communities need to consider when making these decisions.

The value of abundance can help guide energy choices. Smart and informed energy choices reflect the availability of raw materials and the accessibility of technologies to convert them into usable energy.

Organizations like the Innovation Collective seek out ways to activate citizens with a model that draws creativity from the beginner’s mind. Tapping into unexpected resources and abundant ideas allows for more inspired options and employs deeper aspects of human potential to meet the demands of the modern age.

Government leaders and consumers need to consider all options – whether energy, storage or any other type of technology – available to them. Choices must be made to best meet local needs and priorities. Communities across the country and around the world offer examples that others can follow as they determine how to achieve decarbonization goals. Hawaii is working to transition to a renewable hydrogen economy to reduce its reliance on imported, carbon-intensive energy resources. The state’s first publicly accessible hydrogen station was completed in 2018.

Further, as lesser developed and developing countries expand electricity access, they are pursuing carbon-free energy resources. For example, both Bangladesh and Kenya implemented home solar systems.

The all-of-the-above solution is the thing that eludes us when we talk about how to decarbonize the world because there’s this feeling like there needs to be a winner and a loser. Maybe in some cases we’re looking for some magic bullet ‒ just one thing that’s going to solve all problems. There is no such thing.”
The right combination of technologies will vary depending on the region or community and its specific challenges, concerns and available resources. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for decarbonization, but an all-of-the-above strategy gives communities the flexibility to decide the approach that is best for them.
A multigenerational education and outreach effort is vital to decarbonization.

To build the public commitment and support necessary to drive decarbonization efforts, it is imperative that consumers better understand the energy system. In fact, this is an issue that is broader than energy alone. As long as the lights turn on with the flip of a switch, water flows from the faucet and food is available at the grocery store, consumers generally don’t think about where these resources and products come from.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that academics, business leaders and other experts working in communities perceive that consumers lack a clear understanding of what decarbonization is and why it is important. People may understand tangible, real-life challenges, like sea-level rise, but not fully grasp how decarbonizing the electricity grid and the economy can help address them.

An opportunity exists to help consumers understand energy issues and how they relate to daily life.

Some utilities are already engaging nontechnical audiences on these issues through school outreach programs. These efforts help inform children about energy issues beginning at a young age; they then carry that information home to their parents. In addition, many utilities, energy technology companies and other stakeholders engage community members of all ages – from hosting open houses and tours to participating in local events to share information about energy with a broader audience.

These and other education and outreach efforts help to establish the foundation for knowledgeable energy discussions and need to continue and even expand in the future. An energy-informed consumer population can make smart choices that avoid some of the divisiveness and technology tribalism that have characterized many energy discussions, including those focused on decarbonization, to date.

Not only do you have to improve energy education, you need to improve consumer education, particularly if you want to put it into the framework of sustainability and decarbonization so that [people] can be more informed consumers.”
U.S. leadership on decarbonization will come from individual actions rather than broad, nationwide initiatives.

Carbon does not recognize national borders; what one country does affects everyone. While countries around the world often look to the U.S. for leadership, decarbonization is an issue on which the country has not yet taken on that role. More action is needed at every level – from making personal choices to allocating research and development funds to supporting the deployment of new and existing technologies.

U.S. leadership on decarbonization will likely emerge from individuals doing what they think is right, whether in their personal lives, their communities or their businesses. Collectively, more than 320 million people taking action on an issue is hard to ignore. A movement of this magnitude would have an impact and offers an opportunity for individuals across the country to come together to reestablish U.S. leadership.

If we have 320 million people doing the right thing, that’s going to have an impact.”