contact) Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017|2 a.m. As an environmental engineer and a specialist in energy policy, Samantha Gross is no fan of climate-change deniers who see no factor
to decrease greenhouse gases. But Gross, a Brookings Organization fellow in foreign policy, likewise disagrees with far-left activists who tout solar and wind energy as a simple answer to international warming.
The response to climate change and energy is complicated, Gross said, and lies somewhere deep in between those extremes. One size does not fit all, as renewable energy works better in some locations than others and all sources have some negative impact on the environment.
“No one wishes to deal with the complicated middle where we’re going to need to find ways to change the huge energy system to make it run differently,” she said.
Tonight at UNLV, Gross will go over the intricacies of worldwide climate policy and the results of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of President Barack Obama’s efforts to suppress global warming. Her hourlong lecture, entitled “Paris Arrangement 101,” is arranged for 6 p.m. at Greenspun Hall and is open to the general public.
Gross, a former U.S. Department of Energy administrator, took a seat Tuesday with the Sun to preview her discussion and talk about topical issues on climate change, renewable resource and more. Edited excerpts of the discussion follow:
Let’s start with the news last week that President Donald Trump prepared to rescind the Clean Power Strategy. What do you view as the implications of that?
It was clearly going to take place, based on campaign guarantees and based upon the kind of folks in EPA. But the thing that’s interesting about rescinding the Clean Power Plan is the EPA is (lawfully) needed to control greenhouse gases and CO2. So in this process of rescinding or drawing back the Clean Power Strategy, they haven’t recommended anything to change it. So you have 20-odd states who are suing versus the Clean Power Plan. The other 20-odd states are now going to sue due to the fact that the Clean Power Plan was drawn back. So this is going to end up being a little bit of a legal food battle.
And what’s going to be intriguing to see is what the administration does next. They have to do something, however will they propose something quite weak? Will they slow stroll?
As far as the emissions ramifications of it, it’s going to make a difference state by state. Some states have state policies (to minimize CO2) or don’t have a lot of coal anyway, so they weren’t going to be that constrained by the Clean Power Strategy, whereas in others it will probably make a difference.
So it depends on the sort of electrical power generation mix that states started with what does it cost? of a distinction it will make that it’s not there.
In a recent editorial, the New york city Times argued that deserting the Clean Power Plan was ridiculous not just ecologically but financially. Do you agree?
I do typically agree with that. I believe the arguments that rescinding the Clean Power Strategy will be an advantage for the economy are not truthful. You’re definitely seeing declines in expenses of renewable energy– in solar and wind. You’re seeing solar and wind technology improve such that there are other ways to offer a few of the grid services that huge power plants supply– things like keeping voltage constant.
I say this all over I go: The EPA had practically absolutely nothing to do with eliminating coal. Two things have actually killed coal and coal jobs. One is really inexpensive natural gas– the shale gas revolution has actually resulted in gas prices that are way lower than anyone expected a few years earlier. And the important things that’s truly killed coal jobs is mechanization. You can mine a lot more coal per employee than you utilized to. So even if coal need were to increase, you would not necessarily bring all those tasks back.
That’s a really frustrating part of this. You look at the Trump administration and its promises to coal miners, and I get that individuals– particularly in Appalachia– are hurting. However I do not think guaranteeing to bring coal back is a sincere way to help those people, due to the fact that I don’t think it can be done.
When Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris arrangement, you described it as a “actually sad day.” Why?
There was truly no need for us to withdraw from Paris. It was sort of a meaningless exercise.
If you look at the way the Paris accord was structured, the goals that the various countries set and brought to Paris are not binding. We didn’t absolutely, die-hard promise we ‘d do those things; that was simply what we said we were going to aim to do. So it just didn’t need to take place.
Among the other things that I discovered actually unfortunate, especially in the talk that President Trump gave in the Rose Garden, is that he resumed a great deal of concerns that were truly bothersome in past environment arrangements and that Paris was structured to get around.
He stated several times, China doesn’t need to do anything, and China can run coal plants and we can’t, those sorts of declarations. And that reopened a few of the old developed vs. developing world, developed nations vs. lower developed nations. And that was really what made Kyoto problematic and replacing Kyoto problematic.
I’ll speak about this Wednesday night, but both sides had affordable arguments. No one was wrong, it’s simply that the Earth doesn’t care. It does not matter who’s right, we simply have something we have to do.
So there had been movement toward the middle.
There was. And what occurred at Paris, which is exactly what truly changed the thinking and the underlying structure of international environment arrangements, is that rather of it being top-down, they said each nation will bring exactly what it can do. They established exactly what were called Nationally Figured out Contributions. They were all structured differently. Some of them were just, “We’ll reduce our emissions’ intensity,” a few of them were, “We’ll definitely lower our emissions by this much.” They all came in different tastes, but they included them together and that became the Paris agreement. So it was BYOG (bring your own objectives.)
So a mix of that and the reality they were nonbinding made it possible for 195 nations to sign on, which is impressive.
But the mix of those things– inform us exactly what you can do, and we’re going to hold you to keeping track of and reporting what you’re doing, however we’re not going to hold you to your goals– that made for something everyone could sign. And it was totally different from exactly what the world had done before.
At the National Clean Energy Top last week here in Las Vegas, Al Gore revealed optimism that the U.S. would satisfy its Paris objectives in spite of Trump’s action. Are you as positive?
I believe the objectives are going to be challenging. The Clean Power Strategy was among the signature policies to allow us to satisfy those goals, and having us draw back is going to be a problem.
Some states will fulfill the goals and go even more, and some will not without pushing.
The wild card would be expense of renewables and whether it will continue to come down.
Which is the factor he mentioned, largely.
If that continues to take place, and if you can create economical grid-scale storage, then whatever changes. That gets rid of a few of the intermittency (in power supply). The issue now is you need to have fossil fuel plants in reserve to cover when it’s dark or when it’s not windy.
But you have actually raised a caution flag concerning those who suggest that by 2050 we can relatively quickly or inexpensively switch over to totally wind and solar energy. Why do you believe that’s improbable?
The idea of restricting yourself to a little number of technologies– we’re only going to do wind, solar and water– why would you do that? Exactly what we’re doing today is dealing with a lot of innovations and how far we can push them and exactly what we can do most inexpensively. Different innovations are going to work much better in different places. Therefore restricting yourself to wind and solar, I kind of have to roll my eyes to that.
Affordable storage is the grail. If somebody fractures that nut quicker rather than later, you can get the rollout quicker.
Right now, it’s just costly. You consider what does it cost? battery you require for a phone versus how much you need for an automobile, and it begins getting costly at the vehicle scale. Then you scale that approximately grid-scale storage, and you’re yapping of batteries and it gets really expensive.
What other type of innovations should we be exploring more?
In the U.S., we remain in a little bit of a bad put on nuclear advancement.
However there’s a great deal of effort going into advancement here and all over the world on smaller sized, more modular reactors, and that has some capacity. Not everyone loves nuclear power, however as a consistent, carbon-free source of electrical energy I do not believe we must count it out.
That’s a tough sell in Nevada, since of Yucca Mountain.
The waste is a real bear.
You understand, obviously, if there was a totally free lunch on all this, we ‘d be consuming it. I imply, what do we do with hazardous waste versus can we handle the carbon?
Well, take lithium mining for batteries. That has an impact, too, in water use and prospective ecological damage, right?
Right. And if you look at a focused solar plant, you need to cool that, and that’s substantial water use.
I feel like on this problem, the more you know the more questioning you end up being and the more you realize you do not know.
I see a lot of young activists out there, and I enjoy them and like their energy, however on the other hand there’s this thought of “This is so simple, and why do not you just do this?” And I wish that were the case– actually I do.
It’s a fascinating problem, since I see two sides of things and I have significant problems with both. On the one side, you see environment deniers, consisting of a lot of individuals in our administration. This isn’t a genuine problem, it’s going to kill our economy, it’s not something we must be handling. But then on the far other side you hear, this is simple, why don’t we simply speak about wind and solar, and only reason we’re not doing this is the nonrenewable fuel source lobby. And those individuals are harmful, too. They’re not assisting the argument, either, when the solution is in the middle.
And I feel that far-lefty argument sort of takes the individual duty out of it. If it’s ExxonMobile’s fault, then it’s not mine. I don’t like that, since it’s all of our fault. I indicate, I flew here, and I rented a vehicle because it’s the most convenient way to get around.
Nobody wishes to deal with the complex middle that we’re going to need to find ways to change the huge energy system to make it run differently, to make our activities go differently.
So understanding exactly what you know– or maybe understanding what you have no idea– how positive are you?
I’ll address your question in 2 different directions.
The one direction exists will not be a U.S. hole. There are all these things going on in the U.S. that aren’t occurring at the federal level. They’re not our main agents to the Paris procedure, but they’re out there. They’re cooperating with their counterparts in other countries and within the U.S., which is fantastic.
So it’s not like all activity in the United States stopped.
My other avenue of optimism is that the Paris contract’s in location, and we have actually had the world agree on directionally what we ought to do. It doesn’t get us all the method to where we have to be, however it’s something– which’s huge. We’ve set aside the old, nasty fight of developing vs. industrialized world for the a lot of part. And exactly what you’re seeing now is the development of smaller sized groups who are really dealing with particular problems. Which’s where development is going to take place. The U.N. isn’t going to mandate some sort of renewable resource target. But smaller groups of individuals can do experiments and actually discover how things work.
What will be a few of the key points in your discussion?
One of the things I haven’t discussed, which I believe I’ll open the talk with, is why is climate change so hard?
I deal with an international company called the Hartwell Group, and one of the men at the head of that group explains this as a “wicked” issue. And I truly like that description. Since if you were to sit down and design a public policy problem, you could not make one that was much worse.
It strikes at the very heart of the contemporary economy. It’s whatever we do. So you have to make strong actions now that have clear costs but have unpredictable advantages in the future. The expenses are here and now, the advantages are diffuse and later.
And after that you have the issue that environment modification does not fit well into the political cycle. We have 2-, four- and six-year cycles here in the U.S., and it doesn’t fit together well in the time frames where political leaders are elected. Which makes it really hard. They can state, “We’re going to make this improvement for our kids and our grandkids,” however politicians do not get elected for people’s kids and grandkids, they’re elected to fix bread-and-butter problems now.
Then you include this war of the worlds thing with the established vs. developing world. The establishing world states, “You produced the problem,” which is true, and the developed world states, “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 circumstance is so complicated. You know, there are solar panels on this building (Greenspun Hall)– so individuals who come here may say, “Why doesn’t everybody do that, and we’ll be done?”
Well, there are specific sectors that are more difficult. When we go deeper and deeper, it’s going to get harder and harder.
I’ll likewise talk a little about why am I more and less distressed about the Trump administration’s choice to pull out of Paris. I’m even more troubled on the global front than the domestic front. I think it’s horrible for our track record abroad. You look at other deals we might wish to do– trade deals, maybe, or North Korea. We do not look like a reliable partner. Would you do a deal with us? We’re reneging on all type of offers.
On the domestic front, we’re OKAY. A lot of individuals care, and things are happening. And we have among the very best research and development sectors on the planet, which is not always thinking on a four-year cycle. So that things all continues.
Exactly what didn’t I ask that I should have?
The one thing I stress over with the administration, and which I aim to tell every audience I talk to everywhere, is early research study and development. If you take a look at what the federal government is well-suited to do, early research study and development. That’s an extremely natural, main federal government function, from a financial and technical viewpoint. You think about innovative business, they’ll take technology and run with it. However that actually early stage, it’s too risky for business to do and it’s also really challenging if they make a significant science breakthrough to catch all the value from it. So private market’s simply bad at that. Universities do it. Things like the nationwide laboratories do it. And a lot of the money for those projects is federal.
Ernest Moniz (former Energy secretary) mentioned the very same concern recently at the National Top of Clean Energy.
Ernie’s one of the most intelligent people I have actually ever met. I’m in One Hundred Percent agreement. If I take a look at what I want to ensure the administration continues, that basic R&D, we have to continue doing that. It would be a horrendous embarassment, not simply for the environment 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 do not believe they’re always going to happen. Like, you look at the slim budget that came out months back, and it was horrifying. They took a great deal of things out of the budget plan, especially for the Department of Energy. They did some defunding for various nationwide laboratories; they totally defunding ARPA-E (Advanced Research Study Projects Agency-Energy), which is an early stage energy financing mechanism based on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Firm), which created the web. So that’s crazy. But I don’t believe Congress desires that to take place, and I do not believe it will.
But assistance for that early stage science, we have to keep doing that.
When industrial capacity from this early phase science ends up being clear, someone will get it and run with it. Google didn’t create the internet; DARPA did. But once it ended up being clear that loan can be made from it, people will be all over it.