The Road to 100% Renewable Webinar Recap

The concept of 100% renewable energy is rising as a policy choice for reducing carbon pollution. In recent years, several cities and states have committed to 100% renewable energy or net-zero goals, and President Joe Biden has committed to carbon neutrality nationwide before 2050 in his most recent climate plan. 

February’s Deep Dive webinar looked at these policies under a microscope. What is the difference between 100% renewable, net-zero, and carbon neutrality? How can we ensure the protection of jobs during a massive energy transition? How can we ensure that vulnerable populations are protected? What technology is needed to achieve 100% renewable energy? How can we pass these policies in legislatures across the country?

We were joined by Aiko Schaefer, Director of the 100% Network, who shared her experiences advancing 100% renewable energy policies that benefit people of color and harbor a just transition. Dr. Erin Mayfield, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the High Meadows Environmental Institute, who discussed a recent report released by Princeton University, Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts, of which she was a collaborator. Chad Stephens, Ohio Ready for 100 Conservation Program Coordinator, detailed the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign Toolkits and resources with a particular focus on Ohio Ready for 100 Campaigns. Jeremy Caron, Sustainability Program Manager at City of Des Moines, shared his on-the-ground experience of getting a 100% renewable energy standard passed in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Aiko Schaefer, 100% Network

Aiko Schaefer began by defining terms used in the renewable energy space. She defined 100% renewable energy as sources that can be renewed including wind and solar and excluding nuclear and fossil fuels. Carbon neutral and net-zero emissions largely refer to the same idea where some emissions are offset through various strategies to compensate for emissions from other sources. 

She then went into a report put together by the 100% Network entitled, “Comprehensive Building Blocks for a Regenerative and Just 100% Policy,” which looks at how to put forward a policy that is just and equitable, but also focused on regenerative energy. To create this report, they worked with Black, Indigenous, People of Color and Frontline community (BIPOC-F) experts from across the country to define an ideal regenerative energy policy.

The report’s theory of change emphasizes that “the transition to 100% begins by addressing the way our energy and economic systems are structured and requires that power and economic benefits shift hands from the few to the many.” This entails a massive restructuring from an extractive economy into a living economy represented in “A Strategy Framework for a Just Transition.

The report identifies several “building blocks” for a regenerative and just 100% Policy which include: 

  • Aggressive targets, scope, definition
  • Just transition and prioritizing frontline communities
  • Land, transportation, and buildings
  • Siting, ownership, and geography
  • Distributed generation and the grid
  • Public health, careers and workers
  • Public participation and governance
  • Financing and an energy safety net
  • Fuel switching, disposal, and recycling

Each of these building blocks includes specific targets. Under “aggressive targets, scope, definition,” Schaefer highlights that the policies should achieve 100% renewable energy by 2045 or sooner, be economy wide including electricity, buildings, transportation and homes, and promote clean energy that is regenerative and not extractive. A just transition must be the center of any policy that prioritizes environmental justice and frontline communities, promotes gender justice in employment, and advances tribal sovereignty and indigenous land rights.

In the third category, “Land, transportation, and buildings,” Schaefer stressed the need to recognize land, water, and air rights, prioritize transportation justice, push for healthy buildings, safety and energy efficiency, capture renters, single family homes, and mobile homes, and advance anti-displacement and anti-gentrification efforts. Under “Public health, careers and workers,” it’s vital to set concrete public health goals for frontline communities, prioritize universal labor rights and economic benefits, and mandate strong protections for displaced workers. 

“Siting, Ownership, and Geography” entails renewables that are “located in” and “benefit” environmental justice neighborhoods, pushes for community ownership and control, and promotes geographic diversity. “Distributed generation and the grid” focuses on prioritizing local, distributed, and decentralized generation and microgrids and policies that lead to local renewable energy and ownership.

“Financing and energy safety net” looks at a shift to inclusive financing models and creating energy safety nets for BIPOC-Frontline consumers. The important component of “Fuel switching, disposal, and recycling” is addressing leftover fossil fuel infrastructure and the lifecycle of renewables. Finally, “Public participation and governance” demands quality outreach and public participation and requires governance and oversight to meet equity and justice goals. 

100% renewable energy policies should not just be thought of as clean energy standards, but as necessary changes that must encompass a diverse swath of policies and considerations in order to be truly just. She highlights a section in the report that details how you can be an effective ally in this space if you are not a member of the BIPOC-F community. It is important for us all to work collaboratively together to achieve just and regenerative 100% renewable energy policies across the country.

Dr. Erin Mayfield, High Meadows Environmental Institute

Dr. Mayfield centered her presentation around a two-year long research project from Princeton University entitled, “Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts.” In this report, they modeled different techno-economic pathways to achieve net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050, where infrastructure will be sited in this transition, and public health and labor benefits over time. They modeled five “least-cost” pathways to net-zero, which differ in the rates of electrification, technical constraints, and different percentages of energy options. 

All scenarios employ the six key pillars of decarbonization:

  1. End-use energy efficiency and electrification
  2. Clean electricity: wind and solar generation, transmission, firm power
  3. Bioenergy and other zero-carbon fuels and feedstocks
  4. CO2 capture, utilization, and storage
  5. Reduced non-CO2 emissions
  6. Enhanced land sinks

Dr. Mayfield then demonstrated the massive solar, wind, and transmission line construction that is necessary to get to net-zero by 2050. On the map of the United States in 2020, the solar and wind locations are hardly even visible, but when you get to the 2050 map, you see wide swaths of land covered by solar and wind farms and transmission lines that cover much longer distances. 

The study also examined labor and wage impacts in the transformation to net-zero in the United States. In most states, energy-related employment increases over the 30-year period. There are some states that will experience short-term decreases in employment in this sector, but the flexibility in siting of net-zero infrastructure like manufacturing facilities can offset the job losses that come with shifting away from the fossil fuel industry. 

Additionally, air quality impacts were analyzed in this report. In the first decade, about 40,000 deaths will be avoided in each scenario, but in the next two decades, this number jumps up to an average of around 85,000 deaths avoided and 170,000 deaths avoided respectively. 

This report also seeks to convey that this will be a large and costly transition, but the share of GDP spent on energy (4-6% depending on the pathway) is far below historical levels. During the oil price shocks, almost 14% of GDP was spent on energy and during the global financial crisis around 10% of GDP was spent. 

Over the next decade, $2.5 trillion is needed for a net-zero pathway, with half of that amount being spent on electricity and network/transmission costs. The other half is needed for building and appliances, industry and fuels conversion, vehicles, and option creation.

Chad Stephens, Sierra Club Ohio Ready for 100

The Ready for 100 campaign from the Sierra Club is active in more than 180 cities nationwide and, due to the organizing of Americans, 1 in 4 people in America now live in a community committed to a transition to 100% clean renewable energy. 

The Ready for 100 Campaign in Ohio kicked off in Cleveland in 2016. Cleveland was the epicenter of American industrialization, which polluted the city’s air and water. In 1969, an oil slick caused the Cuyahoga River to catch fire for the 13th time leading to increased environmental awareness and the eventual creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. Looking at the present day, 10.7% of Cuyahoga County children born in 2012 had elevated blood lead levels by age 5, and Cleveland has the 9th worst air quality by annual particle pollution of all US cities.

Cleveland also has a great opportunity for renewable energy. Clean energy already employs over 100,000 Ohioans, and clean energy jobs grew 6 times faster than other jobs in the state from 2015-2016. Onshore wind and solar plants will play the largest roles in getting Cleveland to 100% renewable energy according to the Solutions Project. Through the transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050, Ohio will create 151,668 construction jobs and 66,117 operations jobs. 

Building a clean energy campaign in Cleveland has not been easy. Some challenges include: a lack of public awareness of the issues, benefits, and solutions available, an unsympathetic Mayor, and a powerful and fossil fuel reliant utility, FirstEnergy. To respond to these challenges, the Ready for 100 campaign has filled the awareness gap with education and bridge-building across the community, pushed the mayor and others to care about clean energy, and worked with others across the city who are advocating for a cleaner, healthier, more affordable, and equitable future for Clevelanders. 

Looking outside of Cleveland, Columbus (a left leaning city) and Grove City (a right leaning city) have both recently voted to establish Community Choice Aggregation, which will assist in achieving their 100% renewable goals. There is certainly an appetite for renewable energy in cities across the state of Ohio. Chad Stephens emphasized that the cities are an important step to achieving 100% renewable energy, but if you don’t have the people behind it, what success do you really have?

Jeremy Caron, Sustainability Program Manager at City of Des Moines

Jeremy Caron began with a sustainability survey of Des Moines residents that indicated citizens were least satisfied with the city’s progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions followed closely by their dissatisfaction with the city’s efforts to conserve energy both in communities and within city facilities. This drove the establishment of Caron’s position as Sustainability Program Manager and the reinvigorated momentum to advance renewable energy policies in the city. 

Passing a 100% renewable energy policy for Des Moines has a variety of benefits including: progress on clean energy and emissions, an increased understanding of where their energy and emissions come from, a healthier, more just, and vibrant community, an innovative and diverse local economy and workforce, and optimism for the city’s future and growth.

Des Moines has been growing significantly over the past few years, outpacing many Midwestern peers, approaching a population of almost 1 million. This increases the energy use demand, which drives the need for a renewable energy boom. As a leader in Iowa and across the Midwest, other entities look towards Des Moines for guidance on how to proceed, so it is important that it leads by example. Additionally, Des Moines has made climate commitments at the national and international level and needs to deliver on those commitments.

As of January 2021, the Des Moines city council voted unanimously to pass a new resolution committing the city to ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals: 24/7 carbon-free electricity by 2035, 45% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030, and 100% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2050. 

Caron emphasized that the electricity grid we use today was created in the early 1900s and has changed little since then. To help cities achieve a 100% renewable energy future, we need to create a grid that is more resilient and prepared to transform in a short period of time. This entails decentralization, new infrastructure that embraces a distributed renewable energy system and energy storage, and advanced communications ability and metering functionality.

The path to 100% for Des Moines is not linear, but begins with a focus on energy efficiency and a minimization of the electricity load. A phased approach to incorporating diverse renewables and smart grid technologies will be important to providing consistent energy use throughout the transition. 

Not all energy consumption is the same, however, and we need to pay attention to energy efficiency, load shed, and load shift. It matters what time of the day energy is being consumed, generated, and stored. We need to find a balance of how to distribute energy produced at high generation points in the day with high energy consuming points in the night.

The city is currently working on: 

  • GHG Inventory Update
  • Climate Action and Adaptation Plan
  • Implementation of the Building Energy and Water Benchmarking Ordinance
  • High Performance & Grid-Interactive Buildings
  • Energy Master Planning, Existing Building Improvements, & Energy Efficiency
  • Electric Vehicles & Infrastructure
  • Distributed energy resources – renewables, microgrids, district energy, energy recovery & storage, thermal storage, demand response

Caron emphasized the need to move forward in an equitable manner. Des Moines has been prioritizing equity through engaging stakeholders from the BIPOC community, coordinating efforts with the Des Moines office of Civil and Human Rights, using the transition to clean energy as an effective economic development tool for underserved communities, developing low cost energy efficiency programs and inclusive financing, and committing to advocating at the state, regional, and federal level to advance equitable energy policy. 

It is important for the benefits of 100% renewable energy in Des Moines be felt community-wide and especially amongst neighborhoods that share a disproportionate amount of environmental burdens.

All Eyes on President Biden

We asked all the panelists: “If President Biden called you personally, what advice would you give him on his renewable energy plans?” 

Schaefer responded first by stressing the importance of consulting communities. States and cities have been working on 100% renewable energy policies for many years now and have learned what works and what doesn’t. President Biden should communicate with these communities to understand best practices in this space.

Caron added that President Biden needs to work closely with utilities. He notes that we cannot get to 100% without the innovation and active participation of utilities that need to change their business models and technologies moving forward.

Stephens disagreed slightly with Caron’s emphasis on utilities and stressed the importance of microgrids in alleviating energy inconsistencies across large grids. He also suggested that President Biden focuses on rewiring homes. There are older houses across the country that will not be able to handle the load of the clean economy transition. Either we pay for infrastructure upgrades now or we will pay 3-20x more in the future.

Dr. Mayfield is inspired by the commitments of the Biden administration, but stresses the need to be thoughtful when discussing job creation. We need to make sure that we are providing the resources for workers that will be affected by the transition so that they can be brought along in the clean energy economy. This will take sustained federal investment over a long period of time.

100% renewable energy policies can seem broad and difficult to fathom; but with the science indicating we need to move faster than ever to avoid the worst impacts of climate, 100% policies will need to become the norm across all municipalities. However, it is evident from all the panelists that these policies cannot be “one size fits all” solutions. 100% policies need to have meaningful equity and justice components, focus on local employment, and utilize energy and technology solutions that work best for each community. These policies are coming, and it is vital that municipalities evaluate the strategies that best serve their residents as soon as possible.