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Can We Reach Green Goals by 2050? Yes, But It’s Complicated

Averting climate catastrophe and delivering a just world for our grandchildren hinges on collective decisions we make now.

field of wind turbines in the desert
"Renewable Energy Development in the California Desert" by mypubliclands is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

We’ll probably reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, say engineer Jordan Kern and economist Harrison Fell. Or at least we’ll get close – especially when it comes to electricity.

In the future, green energy could leave zero carbon footprint. We could store it for years and transfer it from coast to coast, delivering energy at low cost to anyone who needs it. It’s possible, Kern and Fell said, when I spoke with the NC State researchers last November. It’s even likely. But it won’t be easy. 

Kern models environmental risks, and Fell studies the economics of energy systems and policy. They shared what they know about what influences energy policies, how those policies play out in society, and why people behave the way they do. In our conversation, they laid out the challenges – and opportunities – that may arise on the journey to a green energy future. 

What became clear is that a just energy future will require collectively making hard decisions, picking up slack, accepting responsibility and maintaining faith that what we do now will help future generations. It will also require a lot of money. Governments and individuals will decide where and when to spend this money. And our decisions along the path will fork off into a number of possible futures. 

Whether everyone can participate during the transition and benefit in the future, depends on us: will we create incentives, policies and regulations that ensure no one is overlooked, left behind or abandoned? What will we do to avoid dystopian futures of gas deserts, economic collapse and dangerous blackouts? And what if it all goes right? Could energy be free, reliable and accessible for all? Far into the future, a peaceful, resourceful civilization unconstrained by energy is imaginable. 

This interview, conducted as part of the Long View Project, was edited for clarity. 

Agreeing to pay for inherited problems

From what you’ve discovered in your work on energy policy and modeling, what are some of the largest threats to the energy transition?

Jordan Kern: If you put yourself in the shoes of lawmakers, I tend to think it boils down to a couple of simple things – the willingness of people to pay for a system that is cleaner and equally reliable. I think that’s feasible. We have to collectively decide to do that – and to pay for it.

Harrison Fell: We’re talking about a global public good with damages that are largely in the future, though increasingly becoming more in the present. Some of the catastrophic things, like two feet of sea level rise, are not going to happen next year, but they could happen in 30 or 40 years. I can freeride off of anybody, any nation’s, anybody in the world’s contribution to this public good, and the biggest damages that I’m avoiding are probably decades into the future. Getting everybody to agree to pay, to do something, is the crux of the solution. This is why it’s so challenging. 

Kern: Something similar to that is this generational wealth transfer problem. If you’re young now, that problem has been put on you by previous generations accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You’ve inherited this problem that you haven’t really contributed to as much. Now you’re being asked to make a sacrifice that may not directly benefit you, but rather, someone in the future who you may not connect to.

You’re being asked to make a sacrifice that may not directly benefit you, but rather, someone in the future who you may not connect to.

Fell: That generational challenge plays out in an international context as well. The analogy is similar to a developing country saying: Why do I have to pay? Why do I have to develop energy in a clean way while Western Europe, the U.S., China and other places have developed in a way that is more environmentally harmful? 

The International Panel on Climate Change pretty much says we have to do that – make this collective agreement and reach net zero by 2050 – to stave off the biggest future climate catastrophes. How likely are we to reach this agreement? 

Fell: As economists, we want to create policies or market mechanisms that provide incentives to do things to meet environmental objectives, in this case to meet zero-emission targets. We’re often thinking about how sensitive consumers are to the price of vehicles when they choose to buy a gas-powered versus an EV. How sensitive they are to electricity prices when they decide whether or not to put in a more efficient heat pump versus a standard HVAC system. These are all very much what we’re considering when we when we think about: how consumers and people in industry act, given the incentives they have now, and then; how they will act if we tweak those prices, via some policy subsidies, taxes, whatever it is.

So people may be more willing to pay for the future if there’s some kind of economic incentive right now. So given how you think people will react to our current policies, how close do we come to Biden’s target of carbon neutrality by 2050? 

Kern: I don’t know. It’s state by state. I think the story in the U.S. is that there is no real federal energy policy.

Fell: There is the Inflation Reduction Act.

Kern: There are incentives. There are carrots for doing the right things.

Fell: Carrots only.

Kern: Yeah, and no stick.

Fell: No sticks.

Kern: The last 20 years has been about some states pushing aggressively for reduced or lower emissions, aiming ultimately for zero emissions, at least on the electricity side. I think, again, there’s wealth transfer, or at least, cross-subsidization. The states that adopted early paid a steep penalty for adopting technologies early, and everybody else has benefited from that. In the US, I tend to think that getting a mostly zero-carbon electricity system is a foregone conclusion. I think by 2050 that’s very likely, with maybe a few holdouts. But I also think it’s important to maybe relax the expectation that we get to 100. If we get to 87 – that’s pretty good, right? And I feel more confident that we’ll get there. The electricity sector is by far the easiest one to decarbonize. There are only a few smokestacks to replace.

In the US, I tend to think that getting a mostly zero carbon electricity system is a foregone conclusion. … The electricity sector is by far the easiest one to decarbonize.

With vehicles, it’s difficult. With agriculture and land use change, it’s difficult. Industry, it’s difficult. This is the foundational piece of what has to happen. It’s moving in the right direction, but is it going to happen fast enough or widely enough, globally? The rate and the scale at which this has to happen is daunting.

Fell: Yeah. Look at a lot of the analyses of the Inflation Reduction Act, the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] estimates there’s roughly $700 billion in climate-related, energy-related subsidies in that bill. If you look at the analysis of that by the Princeton Group, by Rhodium, all these other big energy system modelers, I think we still fall short of net zero by 2050. Forty-some percent reductions by 2035 on some of these. Even under that pretty massive investment – certainly the biggest investment the US has ever made at the federal level towards climate policy – we’re still not quite there. 

Winners and losers

Kern: I’m fascinated by the idea that we’re caught in this situation where if we move too slow, we’re screwed. If we move way too fast, we’re screwed. And so we’re in this situation where even if there’s good technology that’s dirt cheap, a penalty will still be paid. Politically you see this playing out. In presidential debates, for example, say they’re talking about somebody wanting to ban oil and gas drilling or fracking. They tie it to jobs and livelihoods. There are going to be winners and losers. 

Kern: A lot of the fossil fuel assets, like coal-fired power plants, have already been built, and so the question is: Let’s say something cheaper comes along. You still borrowed billions of dollars to pay for this infrastructure that relies on fossil fuels. There’s a cost to switching early and stranding your asset. How big of an issue is that?

Fell: Well, obviously it’s different in different parts of the country because we have different electricity markets and different ways we incentivize building electricity assets. So in the market-based regions, you’re just out of luck. I mean, if you built a gas-powered power plant in Texas, and wind and solar get amazingly cheap (they already are in Texas), you’re just going to get undercut, and you’re out. That’s on you, the investor who put your money in. 

Now, if you’re in North Carolina – Duke Energy controls our electricity sector for the most part – it’s a different story. They’re paid on a rate-of-return basis. So they build capacity, and they get a guaranteed rate of return on investment in those capacities. They have incentives to keep some of that capacity around, to keep some of those gas or coal plants. They also have incentives to build new stuff because they also get rates of return on the new stuff.

Kern: If the progressive environmental, climate hawk-type argument prevailed, and we sped the transition up rapidly, do you feel like there is any broader systemic, financial or economic risk associated with globally stranding fossil fuel assets? 

The speculation that I’ve read about is that let’s say there’s a group of fossil fuel assets that are out-competed. We decide, through government action, or through the market, that they’re too expensive. So they’re no longer successful, but that happens so quickly, that they’re unable to pay back who they owe money to, and then those people are unable to pay back money to who they owe money to. And that’s a financial crisis, right? The comparison that many make is to the 2008 financial crisis. The response there was ultimately a public bailout of large financial institutions who were deemed to be too big to fail.

So would we bail out fossil fuel companies?

Kern: The implication there is that if the large financial institutions failed, it would cause such a profound negative social impact that it was viewed as a public service to just either lend or give the financial institutions money. 

I guess the question I’m getting at is: Is fixing climate change quickly [by lowering carbon emissions] too much of a self-inflicted wound that people will just decide we can’t move that fast?

Fell: I’m less concerned about some cascading financial collapse à la the housing market collapse.

Kern: Good.

Fell: It was super sudden – and the entire country has houses. It touched us all. Really bad bets were made by a lot of big financial institutions. 

Can you expand on why you’re not concerned about an energy market crash?  

Fell: Well, one, the pace at which this has to occur would have to be really dramatic. I mean, we’d have to see some massive drops in prices. Two, a lot of our energy companies are somewhat diversified. There are independent power producers who own a coal plant or something like that. Calpine, NextEra, some of these other big energy companies, they own a variety of assets, gas plants, coal plants, maybe even hydro plants, maybe even wind and solar. So they’re a little bit more diversified. And then, three, we just don’t have thousands and thousands of plants, period – let alone the ones that are going to fail. 

We’ve kind of seen some of this already. When we learned how to do fracking really well, natural gas prices fell, and electricity prices fell a lot with the gas prices. All of a sudden, all this coal that we had is not nearly as profitable as it used to be – even nuclear is not nearly as profitable as it used to be. We’ve seen a lot of retirements in coal because it’s just not economically competitive with gas plants. Combine that with an increase in wind and solar, and then coal is really not competitive because we now have a lot of low-cost generation on the system. We’re seeing year over year, continual retirement of capital in the coal sector – and that hasn’t led to any significant financial collapse in our energy sector. 

"GAS" sign in the desert
Gas Station in the desert” by cosmic_spanner is licensed under CC BY-SA

Kern: No. But coal companies have gone bankrupt. And regionally, that’s big. I tend to agree with you that the risk of a larger, cascading issue is not that big. But it’s going to pop up in certain areas.

In politics.

Kern: I think the politics part of it is huge. The volatility part of it could be more concerning. Think about the oil and gas sector. One of the pinch points we’ve been seeing recently is refining capacity. We’ve dramatically reduced refining capacity, and there are not great incentives to go invest in refining capacities. The margins tend to be relatively small, and the long-run forecast for demand growth in oil and gas is not big. In fact, it’s probably leveling off to shrinking if you go way out in the future. You don’t have a lot of people who want to invest in these things.

They’re extremely critical for the price we end up paying at the pump. If a refinery goes down somewhere, if we have a refining outage, we’ll see that at the pump. Over time, as you retire a few more of those, you’ll start to see a lot more of this volatility and some of these issues with spikes and gas prices and stuff. You know, $6, $7 gasoline prices would scare the pants off of most politicians. I think those types of outcomes will become more likely as we move along this transition path. I think the volatility is going to be massive.

Fell: And somewhat self-correcting, right? Because if people experience $8 or $7 per gallon gas, the first thing they’re going to do is try to get an electric vehicle, right? So it’s this gradual unwinding.

Kern: My concern is that we lose political will along the way. So somebody says, oh, geez, we’re at $8 gas prices, and refining companies are saying we can’t invest in this. There’s just no money to be made if we keep investing in these things. Then the government takes some sort of movement to emergency, to keep them going, which effectively keeps internal combustion engines going on the road and cascades and sort of defeats our purpose of trying to decarbonize.

But those decisions would depend on who is in charge, right? In England, for example, they’ve pretty much phased out coal by making it just too expensive. And the government didn’t bail them out.

Fell: No, but they didn’t also see a concurrent, massive spike in electricity prices. The whole European energy crisis over the last couple of years, they’ve seen some really extreme prices, partly due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But some of this started before Russia invaded Ukraine. They were already seeing these big spikes because of some really hot summers and some gas shortages and underperforming renewable energy and a few things cascaded that lead to these very high prices. But if they started to shut down a bunch of coal plants, and then all of a sudden electricity prices doubled or tripled, I’m sure there would have been massive objections. Certainly, we would see that here. I think electricity is more buffered against this than transportation because we have a bunch of other sources that are already cheaper than coal in most places, even natural gas in some places. So we’ve already got this low-cost alternative. 

But the transition path in the transportation sector is going to be a little more volatile. Right now it is largely gas versus EV. There’s no sort of in between. I mean, obviously, you can get a hybrid or something more efficient, but we’re largely subsidizing switching to EVs. We’re going to have these weird tipping points. Some of those assets [like oil refineries]: We’re going to get fewer and fewer of them. Our refining capacity is going to get harder. Maybe you can imagine a world in which gas stations become harder to find. The whole distribution network of the oil and gas sector relies on being able to sell a bunch, a bunch, a bunch of gasoline. And when we start to do less of that, there’s going to be less investment in that. All that sort of stuff opens the door for very big price spikes, and nobody wants a spike.

Leaving behind fossil fuels, without abandoning certain communities

Kern: And this is where it’d be good [to look more into equity concerns]. Because right now, to opt out of the price spikes, to buy [an electric vehicle] is a bit more expensive.

Yeah. It’s a privilege.

Kern: Yeah, it is, right? There’s a lot of data showing that EV ownership specifically, less so solar, skews older, more affluent white guys. It won’t be a nice, neat transition. I think part of the volatility will be: What happens when you still drive a gasoline car but you’re in a gasoline or gas station desert? Or you can’t find one, or you can’t find one in an emergency when you really need one? That sort of stuff is going to shake out in ways that are worth thinking about. And it is probably difficult to anticipate.

If we were to replace all fossil-fuel engine cars with EVs, does that impact the grid a lot?

Kern: Oh, a ton.

So what do we do to prepare for that?

Kern: The absolute best way to break the grid right now is to electrify all vehicles. It’s a gradual process. And it’s not just vehicles, it’s heat pumps. If we’re gradually electrifying our energy consumption, utilities have to be on it. They have to anticipate how demands are going to change in very specific ways, multiple years in advance, and then build the right stuff to respond to that. At least anecdotally, I think they’ve struggled. 

Duke Energy, our main utility in the state, last winter, for the first time in recent memory, they ran out of electricity, and everyone was pissed just because it was the holidays. [On December 24, 2022, Duke Energy issued rolling blackouts for the first time in North Carolina state history in order to protect the grid during soaring demand during a winter storm.] I think if it had happened any other day, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but everybody’s family was over. Part of that was, at least they said, a difficulty in forecasting demand. They had some mechanical failures with some of their power plants. I think utilities are going to be surprised by how much electricity people are using in an instant. And if that gets really high, or goes higher than what they expect, that’s when reliability issues can pop up – and those also don’t affect everybody equally.

Fell: This is what makes this such a great social science and engineering problem. We have to design a system from an engineering perspective that’s super adaptable, and it has redundancies and transmissions built in the right way, and, you know, all of the components that we need to physically build a grid. And then on the other side of that, we have to think about the incentives that consumers have, and the Dukes, the utilities of the world, have to build all that stuff. Then, on the consumer end again, to consume it at the right time, to install the right types of products, install the efficiency products, the conservation products, smart home technologies that allow your refrigerator to talk to the grid and know if it should be cycling or pulling power. 

We’ve got to build the machine. We’ve got to get the people to do the right things. And then we’ve got to make sure we don’t hurt anybody in the path, at least not too much.

What are the incentives for people to adopt those technologies? What are the incentives for people to use energy in ways that align with the reliability and resiliency goals of the electricity balancing area? I mean, these are all very much intertwined with the physical stuff we have to build too. 

And then, layering on top of all that stuff, we want to do all of this in a way that’s equitable, in a way that hopefully reverses some historic environmental injustices, that doesn’t leave behind communities traditionally reliant on fossil fuel industries. There are a lot of things we have to do. We’ve got to build the machine. We’ve got to get the people to do the right things. And then we’ve got to make sure we don’t hurt anybody in the path, at least not too much.

Storage and transmission from coast to coast 

Fell: The area that I’m most concerned about is whether or not we can figure out how to do electricity transmission. Without dramatically expanding our electricity transmission and upgrading our electricity grid, we’re not going to be able to unlock all of this renewable energy potential that we have and all the spending that we’re going to do on renewable energy. That’s the cornerstone of a zero emissions electricity sector – and that’s really the cornerstone of decarbonizing our entire economy.

We know the technologies to decarbonize the electricity sector – solar, wind, battery technologies, maybe some green hydrogen, maybe some geothermal, things like that – but then we have to get all that new power to all the people. And then we have to get all those people to convert everything that wasn’t using electricity as its primary energy source. It’s a big, big challenge. I think we’re going to be a little bit short. The other part of this is that a lot of these models are what we call “knife-edge” solutions.

That means that if costs fall on this technology, just enough given the subsidies, we’re going to invest a lot in it and use it. We don’t know what the cost of solar or wind or batteries or hydrogen is going to be in 10,15 years. If it happens to fall a little bit lower than some of these models have predicted, then we could see even bigger, quicker transitions.

The opposite end of that is also true. Say something gets more expensive. Borrowing money gets more expensive. Labor gets more expensive. Material gets more expensive. Well, now even with the $30, $40, $50 megawatt hour subsidy, maybe it doesn’t make sense. 

Say the knife cuts the right way and we’re able to capture green energy at reasonable prices. Are we capable of storing and transmitting that energy? Because basically, we just have to save it up and have it around for when people need it, right?

Fell: If I could boil down to the single biggest challenge we have to decarbonize our electricity sector, which again, is the cornerstone for decarbonizing our entire economy, it’s transmission. Transmission and storage. Our system of how we set up electricity in the US was not designed to generate power in Iowa and sell it in North Carolina. But that’s precisely what we’re going to need to do to decarbonize quickly. We’ve got to have lines crisscrossing the country. We’ve got to have storage possibilities that allow us to do not just intra-day but inter-year moving of power. We need to be able to get sun from Arizona to the middle of the country and from the middle of the country to the East Coast. All of that relies on good storage and transmission, and we do not have the institutions to do that at this stage.

Kern: It’s not just institutions. There are lots of individuals. Building high-voltage transmission from Iowa to North Carolina means you’re crossing jurisdictions of hundreds, thousands of cities, multiple states, different electric utilities and a ton of private property. 

Along that path, anybody who decides to derail it has an outsized ability to do that. There’s a lot of opposition culturally. It’s become very politicized: climate change and energy. What you’re saying is you’re going to extract wind from flyover states that are largely red and export that electricity to coastal elite, liberal cities. The optics are very difficult.

Fell: Extremely, extremely difficult. That’s why I think this is the biggest challenge – and I’m not just speculating. If you look at, say, Jesse Jenkins at Princeton’s analysis of the Inflation Reduction Act, his big ticket number, 40% reduction in emissions by 2035, that was the key number of his analysis. And then he comes out a few weeks later and says, oh, by the way, you only get that 40% reduction if you basically triple the rate of transmission expansion over that time period.

Kern: Which is the single hardest thing to do.

Our system of how we set up electricity in the US was not designed to be generating power in Iowa and selling it in North Carolina. But that’s precisely what we’re going to need to do to decarbonize quickly.

Does he give suggestions for how to triple the transmission rate?

Fell: There are a lot of people looking into this, a ton. One of the things that is probably pretty clear is that we’re going to have to cede a little bit more power to a federal regulator – FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], likely, DOE [Department of Energy], maybe, to be able to prioritize specific lines – a line from the middle of the country to the east coast, a line from the southwest to population centers in the west coast, something like that – and then also grease the wheels across all of these states and jurisdictions that these lines are going to have to cross. That’s not simple. It’s not like Congress can wave a wand and say “okay” all of a sudden. I don’t think they will be able to just magically pass a bill that says, “Okay, FERC can decide we can build any line anywhere across the country.” 

Kern: Oh, yeah. Because then they’d have to let them do that for natural gas and oil pipelines.

Would building these power lines be messy like building a gas pipeline? 

Kern: There are fewer environmental impacts. But not no environmental impacts. It’s a lot of no one wants to live near a high voltage transmission line. You piss a bunch of people off, basically.

Fell: Yeah, it’s, uh, I don’t have the solution. Federal regulators will have to come in and say, I’m sorry, Missouri and Louisiana and Arkansas, and anybody else in the middle who’s going to get a power line through you, we have to build this power line, or we’re never going to decarbonize. And maybe you pay them something, maybe you –

Kern: You’d have to.

Fell: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to think about remuneration, compensation type of schemes to do this. It’s not going to be cheap. It’s not going to be easy.  

Kern: Sometimes I think about that sort of stuff, and then I’m like, well, what if I were in a town hall meeting in Iowa or Louisiana? Would I feel comfortable saying that? I for sure wouldn’t. There’s the academic argument, and then it’s like, man, I don’t know.

Fell: I think you could if you’re Iowa, because you’re going to profit a lot by building transmission lines. Who I’m worried about are the Missouris, the Tennessees, the Indianas, the thoroughfare, because you’re not producing the power.

And this isn’t just a flyover state issue. This issue is coming up with offshore wind. There’s a lot of opposition, not only to the offshore wind infrastructure itself, like building the big turbines, but also building the power lines to connect those big turbines.

Are they going to be underwater?

Fell: They will, but at some point, they have to go through towns. And those are extremely wealthy towns. New York State auctioned off a record amount of offshore wind leases. Well, where the rubber is going to really hit the road is when they have to start building a transmission line through the Hamptons to get that power over to New York City. There’s going to be massive opposition. There already has been massive opposition to these things.

Kern: And the costs are really high.

Say we get past the costs and opposition to transmission. How are we doing with storage? Will we even have energy to transmit? 

Kern: There are different ways you can store electricity. You could store it in a battery. You can use it to create something that carries energy like hydrogen. You can use electricity to essentially split water into oxygen and hydrogen. And hydrogen, you can use it in another type of mechanism, like a fuel cell, to produce electricity. It kind of works like a battery. Or there’s other sorts of energy storage, right? There’s compressed air.  

Fell: Pump hydro is the largest.

Kern: Yeah, so there’s mechanical energy storage, where you pump water upstream. When you don’t need electricity, you use electricity to pump it up. And then when you do need electricity, you let it fall downhill to produce electricity. 

I think that the storage stuff has largely been solved for how things fluctuate within 24 hours. But, what do you do if there’s four or five cloudy days in a row, or a wind drought or something? Longer duration, daily to weekly, or even seasonal storage: That would balance out the variability. That’s where transmission essentially becomes huge. 

The advantage you can get from transmission is that the wind might not be blowing here, but 1,000 miles away, it might be. And if you average over a large space, a lot of that volatility smooths out. But that would not just involve incredible changes in infrastructure. Institutionally, you would have to evolve the way that utilities cooperate with each other and plan. It’s possible. It definitely is possible. The physical grid is there. You just have to invest more in it and change the way you do business a little bit.

Electricity anywhere, anytime

Kern: But that’s not the only way to decarbonize the grid. That’s the first generation. The part of climate change that is really intractable is the time constraint. You can’t solve the problem gradually over 60 years. The first generation of technologies that we use to decarbonize the grid – and hopefully, more broadly, the US economy – are not what we’re going to use 30 years later. There will probably be a continued evolution in low-carbon energy technologies that might include more advanced types of nuclear power, which look too expensive to fit into this first 30 or 40 years. But down the line, there are some critical issues with solar and wind. These are mostly related to intermittency – if all your electricity relies on the sun and wind, you have to always have sun and wind, which simply isn’t available everywhere, all the time. We don’t sweat these issues as much right now because we have a lot of other resources like natural gas we can use as backup. But we’ll encounter these issues more often as we scale up renewables.

And there are larger questions. If you choose the sub-optimal, from a technological standpoint, like wind and solar, well they’re cheap, but difficult to control. To deal with the variability of wind and solar, you have to build infrastructure for storage, transmission and extra generation capacity. When you just look at the sticker price of wind and solar and compare it to something like nuclear power, you kind of forget about those hidden costs.

But say it gets easier and cheaper to do solar and wind: Does it then make it just totally unattractive 50 years from now to invest in nuclear? There’s some path dependency where if you make one choice today, it kind of constrains the choices you could make in the future. I think our grandkids are probably going to live technologically in a very different world, I would guess, from an energy perspective.

Can you paint that picture for me? How do you see it?

Our grandkids are probably going to live technologically in a very different world, I would guess, from an energy perspective.

Kern: I think there’s a realistic future where electricity is not scarce at all, and it’s incredibly inexpensive, right? I think that is probably the logical endpoint. Materials and engineering gets so good that, like –

Fell: We’re making it everywhere for everything.

Kern: And it’s just – you never worry about it. Electricity is so cheap that we’re no longer really energy-constrained as a civilization. I think that opens up a lot of interesting possibilities.

Like what?

Kern: Well, like, potential for greater economic equity, hopefully. But then, you know, like – just make whatever you want. You can shoot stuff into space –  

Fell: It would massively change geopolitical relationships across the world. Certainly, it could have implications for closing wealth gaps. I do think that we’re quite a ways off. It’s sort of this big given that we have to do this pretty quickly. We’re still going to have to build big renewable facilities, big wind, big solar, maybe some nuclear, and then we have to figure out a way to get it there. 

Say you get in a time machine, and it doesn’t take you to a specific year. It carries you to your most ideal future. Here, policy and politics don’t matter, and the grid, electricity, energy – they’re all optimized. How do you envision this moment?

Kern: I will say the grid does already work very well. It’s 99.95% reliable.

Fell: Fewer than five hours of outages, on average a year, for any given person. And it’s pretty affordable. That has a lot to do with the way we’ve regulated it, how easy it is for utilities to borrow money, and all sorts of incentives for utilities to build enough infrastructure.

Are policies, regulations and incentives what make the difference between a reliable grid like ours and a grid that’s always failing, like in developing countries where outages are more frequent?  Or is it more of a technical thing?

Kern: I think, historically in the United States, it’s the ability of institutions and people to pay for the infrastructure. All the money comes from us. All of it. We are all ratepayers that pay utilities to perform a service. They raise money, and then they give money to other people to build the infrastructure. Then all the money to pay for the stuff they build and to pay for the people that operate the grid comes directly from the people who are consuming electricity. So if you have people who are willing to pay for that critical infrastructure, it gets built. I think that’s the difference. Countries with big, centrally-controlled power systems historically were wealthier countries that could afford that.

Fell: Yeah, you have a tax base or a rate base to do it [people paying taxes that go towards utilities or paying for utilities directly]. Obviously, if you’re in a developing country, and you don’t have a tax base, it’s going to be very hard to build a multibillion-dollar nuclear power plant or dam or something like that. 

Also, as we think about this global public good issue –  CO2 emissions mitigation/reduction – we have to think about those developing countries and how we can finance them to make decisions, invest in technologies that globally get us to our emission reduction goals. Because, again, our damages are not localized from our CO2 emissions. It doesn’t matter if the emissions come from Kansas or Kazakhstan, they’re going to have the same impact on climate change. We have to make sure everybody, all nations, all parts of the world, start to decarbonize, and we have to find ways to pay for that.

About the interviewees

Harrison Fell is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. His research focuses on environmental, energy and natural resources economics, with an emphasis on policy-relevant work. Dr. Fell’s recent work is related to energy systems with a focus on renewable energy, emissions trading systems and electricity regulation.

Insider recommendation:  Fell recommends you take a look at The Big Switch, a podcast where Melissa Lott of Columbia Climate School covers rebuilding energy systems from a layperson’s perspective. Economics nerds can check out the Haas School of Business Energy Institute’s blog, which is basically the reading list for Fell’s undergrad energy economics classes.

Jordan Kern does research focusing on stochastic modeling of coupled natural-human systems to 1) improve understanding of emergent risks to people and the environment across sectors and scales and 2) develop novel approaches for mitigating these vulnerabilities.

Insider recommendation: Kern recommends you take a look at The Energy Gang, a bi-weekly podcast about energy, clean tech and the environment.