S5E2: What You Need to Know About the Clean Energy Revolution | with Dr. Timothy Johnson

A clean energy transition is an essential part of combatting the climate crisis, and the clean energy revolution is already here. But it may not be happening at the speed that we need. In this episode, we'll delve into why we need a clean energy transition, why we’re not seeing it at the scale that we need, what role the government plays, and how we can ensure that this transition is socially just (ie. fossil fuel workers and other people affected by the transition don't have the livelihoods taken away).


Joining us to talk about the clean energy revolution is Dr. Timothy Johnson, Professor of the Practice of Energy and the Environment at Duke University, Associate Dean of Professional Programs, and Chair of the Energy & Environment Program. His research expertise lies in the intersection of energy system planning, design of the built environment, and natural resource management, with a particular interest in how we can leverage interactions among these areas to improve environmental quality and human health. Also joining us to talk about the just transition is Allie Rougeot, the founder of Fridays for Future Toronto and who works on the just transition in Canada.


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Guest: Timothy Johnson, Allie Rougeot


Hosts/Reporters: Raghav Akula, Arshia Ghoreyan


Audio Editor: Emily Nagamoto


Music: Cali by Wataboi



TRANSCRIPT:


KATHERINE:

Hey everyone, welcome back to another episode of Operation climate. This is another episode in our high school intern series where high schoolers from all over the US and Canada create their own podcast episodes. This episode was created by Raghav and arshia. And they brought to you and episode all about the clean energy transition. Where are we right now? What needs to happen? And how do we make sure that we make that transition in a just way? Let's get into it.


RAGHAV:

Welcome to Operation climate, and environmental education, nonprofit podcast created by young people for young people.


ARSHIA:

We examine the nuances of environmental issues through conversations with students, experts, community organizers, and other community members.


RAGHAV:

Hey, guys, I'm Raghav Akula, and I'm from New Jersey. I go to Morristown High School. And right now I'm interning with Operation climate. A few fun facts about me or I'm a climate and racial justice advocate. I'm a political junkie. I'm a quantum and astrophysics nerd. And I'm also SpongeBob fanatic.


ARSHIA:

Hey, y'all, I'm Arshia Ghoreyan, and I'm from Oklahoma. I just graduated, but I will be going to Ohio next year attending Case Western Reserve and I'll be studying aerospace engineering. And a fun fact about me is that I really like fiction, specifically science fiction.


RAGHAV:

working so much with environmentalism, I can't help noticing all of the extreme climate related phenomena occurring around the world. Record breaking heat waves, wildfires, and mega droughts on the West Coast, unprecedented flooding in Europe, China and the East Coast of the US. Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to be the reality for our future. And we have to find a way to adapt arshia you even know some people personally affected by these compounding crises, right?


ARSHIA:

Yeah, I have a friend from New York City last month. It was so hot in New York that I think some places had their electricity cut. So they had no AC and friend of mine told me that his family couldn't even use the restroom, the toilet seats were too hot. And I have another friend from the state of Washington, his family rose crops in they raised livestock, and we had to sell early this year. And it's because of the widespread drought that's plaguing the states. Yeah, it's just horrible.


RAGHAV:

Yeah, all of this stuff just demonstrates the sheer importance of shifting our economy away from fossil fuels. And we have a readily available tool to do that clean energy. In this episode, we'll cover why we need a clean energy transition, why we're not seeing it at the scale that we need, what role the government plays, and how we can ensure that this transition is socially just for which we have a special appearance from a Friday's for future representative.


ARSHIA:

Our first speaker Dr. Timothy Johnson is a professor of the practice of Energy and Environment at Duke University, Associate Dean of professional programs, and chair of the Energy and Environment Program. His research expertise lies in the intersection of energy systems planning, design of the built environment and natural resource management with a particular interest in how we can leverage interactions among these areas to improve environmental quality and human health. We also have input from a representative for Friday's for future Ali Rougeau, who founded Friday's for future Toronto and works on the just transition in Canada.


RAGHAV:

Now let's delve into our interview.


ARSHIA:

First, we need to get an understanding of what the clean energy market looks like. The renewable energy sector has so many different technologies to offer, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydro electric, biomass, and even hydrogen fuel cells. Right now, the status quo is that solar and wind dominate. Hydroelectric has stayed relatively the same for a while and geothermal is receiving growing interest, the future will likely hold a combination of all of these electricity sources.


RAGHAV:

As much as we wish we can just snap our fingers and completely shift our economy away from fossil fuels. The reality is that a quick transition might take longer than we want. This means that there's a danger to not starting this transition soon. It's an immense task that will take a significant amount of time, as Dr. Johnson warns us,


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

the transition itself will not be rapid will not occur overnight. It's a large system that needs to be changed. It's not something you can just turn off and then turn on something new. So the longer we wait to begin that transition, the longer it will be before we get to where we need to be.


RAGHAV:

In other words, the transition to clean energy will take time if we want to do it in a smart fashion. So countries need to start now. As long as fossil fuels retain their hold on the economy, human activities will continue to produce emissions. Across the board,


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

you know, energy supply and use, you're responsible for about 40% of our freshwater consumption, in some cases, as much as 90% of criteria pollutants that lead to other air quality considerations. And so anything you do to reduce emissions, you'll promote climate concern will have broader environmental impacts,


RAGHAV:

and clean energy plays a vital role in reducing those emissions.


ARSHIA:

So we know that renewables are among our strongest weapons and the fight against climate change. But why aren't they being used as much as they should be? Essentially, there are four main factors to the shortcoming. The first is simply research and development. There's not enough of it. Right now, it's just incredibly difficult to use existing technologies to store renewable energy on large scales, we need lots of innovation in this sector.


RAGHAV:

The next three reasons are primarily economic, for example, there's little incentive to replace existing infrastructure with renewable technologies, if there's nothing wrong with what we have now, financially, at least. That means if our coal and natural gas plants are producing electricity at a price competitive cost, no one really wants to get rid of them. One way to circumvent this is if society and governments acknowledge the economic toll of the climate crisis, and use this as a stimulus to transition at a faster pace.


ARSHIA:

The other two reasons are very interrelated.


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

One of the first barriers is that the existing system, you know, in some cases, isn't that old. And we talk about stranded assets, you know, there, it's, you know, investment in power plants and other infrastructure that is far from having out, you know, lived its useful life. And if you were to shut that down prematurely, that's a fairly significant economic loss. And so, you know, as we build out more and more renewable and renewable capacity has come online, has come on to meet new demand grows to replace plants that are retiring plants that have become economical, at some point, you know, as you expand renewables, it's going to cut into generation capacity that is still economical to run. And so overcoming that barrier is important.


ARSHIA:

Did you catch the last two reasons. Basically, there's an economic loss of replacing new infrastructure, for example, fossil fuel plants that don't need replacing with sustainable versions, like solar farms, in addition to that many renewable energy projects right now are simply used either to replace existing energy resources that are no longer economical, or to meet rising energy demands. The takeaway is that renewable energy can only become more cost effective as it continues to expand in use.


RAGHAV:

A good news is on the horizon. Across the globe, a nascent clean energy revolution is beginning to unfold, renewable energy capacity was up 45% in 2020, led by a 90% increase in wind power, and a 23% increase in solar power, these massive gains in energy capacity, are riding the wave of a worldwide price decline of renewables, the costs of solar and wind energy, in particular, are decreasing dramatically, and this could feel change.


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

You know, it turns out that in many places of the country, particularly have good solar and wind resources, you know, those are the least costs form degeneration on the system, and cannot compete even natural gas, in some cases, pairing them with storage a little bit more expensive. But you'll see those costs come down as well over time. In fact, if you look, at the last 1012 years, there's just been exponential decline in the cost of solar battery storage, as well as other technologies that just, you know, challenge the conventional wisdom from a decade ago.


RAGHAV:

Dr. Johnson hit it right on the nose. The cost decline for certain clean energy technologies really has been exponential, both solar and wind prices have fallen substantially between 2010 to 2019, with photovoltaic solar costs, leading the way at a full 82% reduction.


ARSHIA:

In fact, in places with a lot of sun exposure, or a lot of wind, the cost of solar and wind energy are dramatically lower, sometimes even undercutting natural gas. Even in the developing world, renewables are often more cost effective. Think about it. If you have to build or rebuild an entire energy grid, you might as well do it with a form of energy that's reliable, sustainable, and not harmful to the people around it. With all


RAGHAV:

these economic benefits, a clean energy transition seems almost inevitable. But right now, there's a battle brewing within the United States over how it should play out. On one side of the aisle, you have proponents of large scale electricity transmission lines that span the country in this utility scale video power generated from around the nation can be transported to wherever it's needed. For example, solar power in California, and offshore wind power from the East Coast could power businesses in the Midwest.


ARSHIA:

On the other side of the aisle, you'll find advocates of small scale rooftop solar programs. In this reality homes and small businesses would be equipped with solar panels that would generate electricity by day, and hopefully use special batteries to help store the energy. The idea here is to create a more decentralized electric grid, where households are not just passive consumers of energy, brother, many power plants themselves. So which of these two features should dominate?


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

I think you need a mix of both. And again, that may sound like a cop out, you know, answering the question. But rooftop solar works in some situations, you know, for moderate science homes, it's you can get enough electricity for the most part, especially if you have battery backup that allows you to store that, that you know that energy. But rooftop solar doesn't work for larger buildings. I'm in a moderate sized academic building right now. And our entire roof is covered with solar and at most that supplies about 10% of our electricity load, you need a central grid providing that power to meet the rest of the demand.


RAGHAV:

So solar power and batteries used to store energy are a great combo for individual homes and small businesses. But they won't be able to supply power to moderate and larger sized buildings. You need a utility scale grid to supply power for energy intensive structures around the nation, while smaller buildings can mostly rely on their own power generation.


ARSHIA:

However, there are important considerations about the cost of both of these options. And utility scale transition between transmission lines spanning the country, especially one that is very rapid, will raise prices for pretty much everyone. Even rooftop solar and decentralized energy sources can be more expensive for people if there are no government subsidies, or policy programs and in place to lower costs


RAGHAV:

government subsidies and policy programs. That brings about a good point, the government as an institution has a vital role to play in this transition. Right now, a lot of renewable technology development is occurring due to state or local laws. But Dr. Johnson advised us that the federal government needs a part in this play as well.


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

Federal Clean Energy standards, you know, would certainly help support for transmission, you know, sounds like kind of a boring topic. But really, that is probably the biggest bottleneck to increasing renewable capacity in the US. And that's where you need coordination across state as well to make that happen. And the federal government can play a role there.


RAGHAV:

It looks like it won't suffice to rely solely on local laws to stimulate sustainable growth. The federal government has a huge part to play in coordinating the effort, and especially in overseeing the interstate transmission of electricity, our takeaway, all levels of government are needed in order to incentivize clean energy development.


ARSHIA:

So what exactly can Congress do right now to address emissions and help renewables in the process?


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

You know, if we had a strong climate policy, you know, whatever form that would take, whether it's a renewable, kind of a clean energy standard, renewable portfolio standard, the national level, some sort of carbon price or carbon tax, I think you'd incentivize more, you know, low emission, zero emission resources come on the grid. Right now, you know, at least at the national level, there really isn't a way of valuing, you know, the the absence of emissions.


ARSHIA:

Right now, the status quo is that there are very few hefty financial incentives, like carbon tax, pollute less on a national scale. If there are federal initiatives that resolutely favor renewable over fossil fuels, it would definitely help to push the Clean Energy Transition along. So if we could summarize what the main benefits are of a government investment in clean energy, what would they be?


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

I think there are a number of ways to look at that, you know, there's always energy security, you know, the less dependent you are on forms of energy that are subject to, you know, global disruptions and global economic disruptions, you know, the, the more secure you're going to be. See that, particularly with petroleum, but building our domestic manufacturing capability, whether it be for solar for batteries, you know, I think that's a source of jobs, reasonably good jobs in manufacturing, and just building up domestic capacity, which is something we've let slip up quite a bit.


ARSHIA:

In other words, renewable energy investment helps us in two crucial ways. The first is with energy security. We won't have to rely on other countries for fuel. The second is with good paying jobs. The Clean Energy sector offers an incredible array of occupations, which aren't just limited to manufacturing.


RAGHAV:

But there's an even more important reason for the government here in the US to invest in renewable energy, and that's global leadership.


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

Depends on how you look at it. There's still you know, a billion plus people in the world who don't have access to, you know, by electricity. And, you know, as those countries build out electrical infrastructure, you know, kind of leapfrogging over the more traditional fossil fuel forms of generation, you know, is certainly important and there's a role to play there, the agencies and governments are provided that are engaged in international development certainly have a role to play there. And there are certainly huge health benefits to from some of that. So it's in in the US needs to be a leader in climate policy as well lead by example,


RAGHAV:

there are still around a billion people who lack access to basic forms of electricity. And as developing nations attempt to skip traditional fossil fuel infrastructure and turn directly to clean energy, partnership and leadership from powerful countries like the US will be essential. In other words, rich countries have to make the move first, nations like the US should transition to clean energy as quickly as economically viable so that they can engage in partnerships with the developing world to aid them in their transitions. When the government rich countries prioritize a clean energy transition, everybody wins. Now, there's one component of this transition that we haven't talked about yet, and it's likely the biggest unknown factor, with the fossil fuel industry, employing so many workers. What happens when that industry can no longer exist because it's harming the planet. Ensuring that workers affected by the transition are not left unemployed with no source of income will be crucial in this fight. This idea is especially relevant for rural areas of rely on jobs like coal mining. So can we do it? Can we make sure that no one is left behind? Well, Dr. Johnson indicated that at least part of the solution will have to emerge from fossil fuel corporations themselves. As oil companies transition away from fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy, it will give fossil fuel workers a chance to redirect their focus to clean energy within the same industry.


ARSHIA:

However, it's undeniable that the government plays an indispensable role in guaranteeing that no one is unfairly left behind. As our Fridays for future representative Ali Rougeot explains,


ALLIE ROUGEOT:

what we have to do is initially get everybody at the planning table and get people to see for their region, their team, their unit, their factories, what they could do to enter a decarbonized economy. Is it transforming who they are? Is it creating jobs elsewhere and getting paid retraining? Is it early retirement, there will be no one size fits all solution. But the only thing we can do and we know will work is getting them at the planning table. And more than that, we need to stop thinking it's just fossil fuel workers, because fossil fuel workers will definitely be the most impacted rapidly. But there's workers in the automobile industry, there's retraining needed to build electric vehicles. It's not the same thing right from our downtown Toronto, maybe I'm thinking that's the same stuff. It's not are the people that are, for example, most affected by the effects of climate change, they're going to need to adapt their workplace and they need a plan. No postal workers often talk about that, for example. So we really need to look at the Canadian society as a whole and say, what is the transition that our economy nationwide is going through? And really, again, getting people at the planning table? And the last thing I will mention, this is a long answer. But sometimes definitions need to be accurate, is that we need to include people that were historically excluded from the good high paying jobs. And that means black people, that means actually all people of color, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, disabled folks, women. So we really also need to invite in the ones that are not even currently in the jobs, and that complexify things, but also, that's what's gonna make it a just transition right?


RAGHAV:

When we make this transition, we want to ensure that we come out stronger on the other side. By emphasizing social inclusion, we can make sure that those who are normally left out like people of color woman, indigenous peoples immigrants, and the disabled are better off because of this clean energy effort.


ARSHIA:

Renewable Energy poses challenges that certainly will be difficult to face. But we're living in an exciting time, the mass transition to clean energy starting right now. And continuing as we speak. There are so many opportunities available to you to get involved in clean energy development. As Dr. Johnson explains.


TIMOTHY JOHNSON:

Energy is not just an engineering or the domain of economists or even lawyers. I mean, it's a much broader field events is a very exciting one to be in. And regardless of what your academic background is, there really is a role that you can play it. So if you're thinking about an area that At is growing, that's rather exciting to be and you know, after 120 years or so sort of incremental change, we really are on the cusp of a pretty significant transition. I can't say how that's gonna play out, and I can't say how quickly it'll play out. But, you know, it's definitely a place where you can build a substantial career, this can be meaningful and make a difference. So there's that you're going if you're thinking about where to go with life, in your career, you know, the jobs will be there. Otherwise, you introduce a lot of choices to make and in your life, you know, we we all are consumers of energy, you know, whether it's for the domestic conference we enjoy or just the way we get around the demand for mobility, and educating yourself being aware of how use energy, you know, even sometimes people feel rather overwhelmed by the scale of it, that they just throw up their hands and say, well, any little change I make won't make a difference. But you know, that's not true. No, even small differences add up if enough people make them.


ARSHIA:

So careers, including energy are plentiful and fruitful. They're not just confined to engineering or economics. But because we are on the verge of a mass transition, there is no shortage of opportunities available in the renewable energy industry.


RAGHAV:

Also, be aware of your own carbon footprint, transportation, your diet, heating, AC electricity, even your stoves, every small change can and will make a difference. Finally, there is no better time than now to get engaged with government. They'll only prioritize the clean energy transition if they feel the public pressure from people like you. We're living in a time period where there's no time to waste. So never doubt what you as an individual can accomplish.


KATHERINE:

Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of Operation climate and great job to Raghavan. Arsha. For bring us such an informative episode. Just stay updated about future episodes and other activities that operation climate is engaged in. Subscribe and follow us on our social media. We are @Operationclimate on Instagram @opclimate on Twitter and @Operationclimate podcast on TikTok. If you want a full transcript of this episode with links that you can explore to learn more about this topic that we covered today, head to our website at bit.ly/operation Climatepodcast and we want to hear from you so please, please please leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. That would be amazing. And we hope you join us next time. See ya


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