Moniz, Trumka promote energy jobs plan

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 28, 2020

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka are carving out a place for natural gas under an energy and jobs plan they say would slash emissions across the economy.

The plan outlined by the coalition of union and energy interests formed by Trumka and Moniz lists 10 strategies for creating jobs and advancing social equity “in a deeply decarbonized economy.”

Heading the list would be a nationwide program to capture CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion in power and manufacturing plants, and to store it underground or recycle it.

In an interview, Moniz said adding carbon capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS) technology to gas-fired power plants is a path to lower emissions and new job creation. Oil and gas industry workers, for example, are well-equipped to help build and operate carbon capture systems.

Other policies, if enacted, would expand offshore wind projects and the construction of electric transmission lines, preserve existing nuclear reactors and support next-generation reactor technologies, develop hydrogen as a major fuel source, and increase U.S. lithium and rare-earth mineral mining for use in batteries and other energy technology.

The energy strategies are meant to deliver what Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has called “good union jobs.” Trumka seconded that goal in a statement: “At this time of economic crisis, we need to put as many people as possible to work as soon as possible.”

Binding clean energy goals with employment opportunity expands the political constituency for climate policies, Moniz said in an interview.

But a policy that preserves a central role for natural gas and nuclear power in the energy portfolio cuts against progressive goals to shift the country to renewable energy and fully jettison fossil fuels and large-scale nuclear energy.

Earlier this month, a group of 145 progressive organizations wrote to Biden urging the former vice president, if elected, to exclude from his administration anyone connected to the fossil fuel industry. That would include Moniz, a member of the Southern Co. board of directors.

“People who left government to serve on a fossil fuel industry board, enrich themselves as oil and gas advisors, receive funding from fossil fuel companies to espouse ‘reasonable’ climate positions, or work with industry front groups should have no role in a Biden administration or campaign,” the groups wrote.

With its “all of the above” energy options, the Moniz strategy paper expands a dispute between the former Energy secretary and some Green New Deal advocates who oppose any expansion of fossil fuel power generation and want Biden to support a ban on fracking production of natural gas, a position Biden has rejected.

Moniz responded to these critics saying he joined the Southern board to advocate for a larger, faster commitment to carbon-free energy by the utility, and that has happened.

To define the climate goal just in terms of banishing fossil fuels invites failure, Moniz said. “The right question is what are we doing to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere? Changing the question to what degree is there any fossil fuel use is the wrong question,” he said.

“In some circles, data is a four-letter word,” he added. “You’ve got to be pragmatic. You’ve got to offer real solutions. We can all speak into an echo chamber and get back the echo we want.”

A heavy lift

Reaching agreement on solutions requires addressing scientific, regulatory and political issues that are not close to being resolved, said Peter Fox-Penner, director of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy and author of the book “Power After Carbon.”

In his book, Fox-Penner cautioned that storing billions of tons of carbon emitted from power and industrial plants will require massive investments in safe pipeline and storage infrastructure. “No government has the capacity to make this sort of investment, and private developers require a regulatory framework and project economics” that give investors the confidence to commit huge sums, he wrote.

Fox-Penner cites a Stanford University study calculating that U.S. electricity demand could be met solely by wind and solar power with battery backup. But the amount of the renewable resources would have to grow to two or three times peak U.S. demand. There would have to be no limits on transmission construction connecting the wind and solar plants to customers, he noted, and there would need to be enough storage capacity to meet between 12 hours’ and a month’s worth of demand.

“These assumptions represent gigantic leaps of faith,” Fox-Penner wrote.

Biden, in his climate policy platform, sets the goal of a zero-carbon electricity sector by 2035. The leap that represents is detailed in the “2035 Report” by the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study’s authors calculate that moving the U.S. grid to 90% zero-carbon electricity by 2035 is achievable at a reasonable cost and would create the equivalent of 29 million full-time jobs between now and 2035.

“To achieve the 90% clean case by 2035, 1,100 gigawatts of new wind and solar generation must be built,” about equal to the entire U.S. electric power generating capacity today, according to the Berkeley analysts. “Although challenging, a renewable energy build-out of this magnitude is feasible with the right supporting policies in place.”

The build-out would average about 70 GW of wind and solar per year, the authors said. Although that’s multiples of what’s being built today, they said there is a precedent for that scale of development in the 65 GW of new natural gas capacity built in 2002.

Under the 90% scenario, all existing coal plants are retired by 2035, and no new fossil fuel plants are built beyond the ones now under construction. Their plan retains a majority of current natural gas generation as backup. “Our 90% clean [formula] is 70% wind and solar, 20% hydro and nuclear, and 10% gas (on an annual energy basis), but we left enough gas capacity around to handle low wind/solar times,” said one of the report authors, Ric O’Connell, executive director of GridLab, a research and analysis group on grid transformation.

Fox-Penner said the tension between competing scenarios is not a problem. It can lead to answers.

Pushing the nation’s energy sector and the economy through such a massive transformation will require trade-offs by advocates for various solutions, Fox-Penner wrote. “Where we must make explicit trade-offs, they should be based on a thorough, transparent evaluation of the public interest,” he said.