The Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, California

The Future of Clean Energy in America: A conversation with advocate Tremaine Phillips

The 2016 presidential election left many environmental activists feeling uneasy, even fearful about the future. Carbon dioxide levels are at an all-time high and President Trump shows no interest in fighting climate change. It seems that momentum behind renewable energies gained over the last eight years would grind to a sudden halt. But according to Tremaine Phillips, a future of clean energy is inevitable, no matter who is president.  

Tremaine Phillips has spent his short, yet impressive career working to help the American government and its citizens move to a carbon-free energy economy. A native of Michigan and proud Spartan alumni, Philips is currently working as the director of strategic initiatives at Empower Gas and Electric, a utility helping homeowners increase energy efficiency. He was drawn to a career in clean energy because it presented more opportunities for entrepreneurship. “When you are talking about conservation, reforestation, or other environmental issues, it’s usually the public sector, nonprofits, or advocacy organizations at the forefront,” he says. “Clean energy is the area with the most potential for innovation and development.”

Phillips in 2014 during his internship with the Obama Administration

In 2014, Phillips interned at the White House at the Council on Environmental Quality, where he did policy work and coordinated messaging for the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s initiative to force states to move away from carbon-intensive electricity generation such as coal power plants.

Focused and thoughtful, Phillips provides a unique perspective on renewable energies in America that is both optimistic about the future of wind and solar while realistic about the coming challenges of climate change. Our conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Chris Anderson: For those who have not been following energy policy closely, what does the Clean Power Plan do and why is it so important?

Tremaine Phillips: The Clean Power Plan (CPP) was a regulatory strategy created by the Obama Administration to aggressively encourage the decarbonization of America’s electricity sector; the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. US greenhouse gas emissions have actually declined since the 2009 Great Recession, but the CPP set the goal of further reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 30% (below 2005 emissions levels) by 2030. In order to reach this goal, states would be required to formulate and implement plans to reduce the CO2 emissions from power plants in that state’s jurisdiction.
The CPP provided states with a set of “building blocks” the states could employ to reduce emissions. These building blocks included strategies such as converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas, increasing the efficiency of existing coal-based power plants, or replacing coal with zero emissions technology, such as nuclear power or renewable energy. The Trump Administration’s recent executive order places immense doubt on the future of the CPP. The somewhat comforting news is that the Trump Administration cannot easily repeal and eliminate all aspects of the CPP. Furthermore, the EPA’s 2009 “endangerment finding” legally obligates that the EPA take steps to address greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.

Coal power plant in Datteln, Germany. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CA: Let’s talk about the states for a moment, because in America they are given a lot of autonomy from the federal government. With the current administration’s hostility towards renewable and clean energies, particularly with the recent executive orders and the budget proposed by the White House, how do you think the states will respond?

TP: What is really interesting is that when you looked at the proposed per state emissions reductions targets in the Clean Power Plan, there are many states that are already on track to meet the goals set forth in the CPP. There are also a number of states that are implementing their own greenhouse gas reduction targets which would surpass those proposed under the CPP. Additionally, small and large cities all across the country are taking the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions with and without federal support.

CA: Does that mean that the Clean Power Plan didn’t go far enough in requiring states to reduce emissions, given that most were going to meet those goals anyways?

TP: That certainly was an argument by some climate and environmental advocates. My view is that the Clean Power Plan was not designed to force states that were already reducing greenhouse gas emissions and implementing clean energy policies to do more. Instead, the CPP provided the necessary impetus for action and support to states where clean energy and climate policy action has been politically infeasible, either because of the oversized influence of fossil fuel interest or because of the prevalence of existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

Take West Virginia and Ohio for example. These states have historically been politically hostile towards state-level clean energy and climate change legislation. These states, however, have also inherited a 50-plus year legacy, and have been disproportionately burdened with extracting and burning coal for the benefit of other regions across the country. So the challenge faced by the Obama Administration was to construct a policy mechanism that would enforce aggressive emissions reduction goals in these carbon saturated states, while also recognizing their inherited carbon burden.

CA: Does that mean that even though the Trump Administration has told the EPA that the plans for each state to comply for the CPP are not needed, that a lot of states will continue towards their goals of decarbonization, either because they have put in their own policies or because their energy markets are already pushing towards that?

TP: Yes, I do not believe that the Trump Administration will attempt to dismantle the CPP and not require states to submit carbon reduction strategies under the CPP, but in the short term this will have only a marginal impact on the electricity sector, and utilities will continue to decarbonize their fleets. When you have an industry as large and dreadfully complex as the electricity sector, the industry tends to value one thing in particular; predictability. The Trump Administration stark, erratic, and many times befuddling energy proposals have created an environment of significant variability and unpredictability. So I expect many large companies in the energy and electricity sectors to stay the course they had set during the Obama Administration. Yes, the Trump Administration could be in office for 8-years and implement a policy regime that would allow energy companies to significantly ramp up emissions from carbon-based power plants.

On the other hand, we could have a new presidential administration and Congress in 2020 (or earlier), and those parties could move forward with placing a price on carbon dioxide. The range of potential regulatory possibilities over the next couple of years, coupled with the continued decline in renewable energy costs and lack of financing for coal-based power plants, I see the decarbonization trend continuing in the short term.

Aside from the Trump Administration’s disdain for the Clean Power Plan, I am also very concerned with the Administration’s intentions to eliminate or deemphasize the federal government’s role in monitoring climate change data and incorporating climate change into the their decision making processes. Such actions would have long-term and potentially irreversible consequences.

CA: What I have found interesting is that America has traditionally been a world leader, especially in business and industry. But we are seriously behind many other countries when it comes to deploying renewable ways to generate electricity.

TP: The UK has already deployed 5 gigawatts (GW) of electricity generated from offshore wind farms right now, with another 4.5 GW in the pipeline. By comparison, the Davis–Besse Nuclear Power Station located east of Toledo and West of Sandusky, Ohio, has a capacity less than 1 GW. The Danish wind systems company Vestas is deploying a 9-megawatt wind turbine prototype. To put this into perspective, the wind turbines you see off of Route 75 in Ohio are 1.2 or 1.5 MW. If you are generating 9 MW’s from one turbine, and then you are placing a host of turbines out over the open water, allowing for uninterrupted and constant wind flows. You are talking about thousands of homes being powered over a much smaller geographical footprint. Meanwhile, the US just moved forward with its first offshore wind project off of the Northeastern Seaboard.

So, though the technology certainly exist and much of this technology was pioneered in the U.S. (the first solar panels were invented by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, of all places), there’s still an incredible disparity in regards to implementation. The barriers to clean energy in the U.S. are regulatory and political in origin, and not due to the feasibility, existence, or even the cost of clean energy technologies.

The Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind Farm, Essex, Great Britain. Each turbine has a 3.6 MW capacity. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CA: Even without the Clean Power Plan, there has been a lot of growth in the renewable energy sector. How do you see this emerging market moving in the future?

TP: I couldn’t say this 5 or even 3 years ago, but there’s so much momentum in the sector that it is buffered to a certain degree from the regulatory challenges presented by the Trump Administration. Now, if somehow congress started tinkering or eliminating tax credits for solar or wind, that could have massive implications for the clean energy market. Those tax credits, however, have already been passed and baked into legislation, and it would take a great deal of political capital to eliminate them. This is especially true because some of the foremost beneficiaries of the tax credits are companies and residents that reside in Republican states. Many of the Great Plains states such as Iowa, Texas, and Oklahoma are benefiting greatly from the wind power production tax credit.

But, to give you an idea as to just how much this area of the economy is growing, a report by the Solar Foundation found that in 2016, 1 in every 50 new jobs created in the U.S. was related to the solar industry. In Ohio, solar energy-related jobs (4,800) now outnumber jobs in the coal industry (less than 3,000).

The costs in solar and wind are also continuing to fall. Solar module prices have fallen 80-90% since 2008, and in some states, new wind developments are coming in as the lowest cost electricity generating resource.

2% of all new jobs created are related to renewable energies. Photo credit: Wikipedia

CA: What do you see as the most critical technology that will be developed in the next 5-10 years that would help move us away from a carbon-based economy (gasoline powered cars, coal plants, disposable plastics, etc) towards one that is more environmentally sustainable?

TP: In terms of technology, one of the most important developments going forward will be battery storage. Battery storage will not only completely disrupt how utility companies manage and sell electricity, but it will also provide homeowners and businesses with greater energy independence.

Carbon sequestration technology will also have to become a reality at some point. We are going to have to engage in massive decarbonization of existing atmospheric GHG emissions in order to have any chance of keeping global temperatures below the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposed 2°C threshold. Simply slowing and mitigating emissions is not going to be enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. The most effective means we have for carbon sequestration today, however, is reforestation. Artificial carbon capture and sequestration technologies are only in their infancy and still decades away from commercialization.

But we not only need innovation on the technological front, we also need innovative business models that will allow us to finance the deployment of new clean energy technologies. A financing model called solar leasing, for instance, allows a homeowner to pay monthly for their installed solar array as opposed to paying  $15,000 to $20,000 upfront. Similar financial and business model innovations will further the growth, accessibility, and uptake of clean energy technologies.

CA: A lot of what we are talking about seems to embody the ideals that conservatives in America espouse; personal freedom and independence from a government regulated infrastructure for your power needs. Why hasn’t it gotten more traction with the conservative circles?

TP: Energy independence is certainly recognized as a key issue. There’s a group called the Green Tea Party operating out of Georgia, which was created to oppose anti-solar policies advanced by several incumbent electricity utilities in the south. The organization was started by Republicans and conservatives who were committed to eliminating barriers to residential and distributed solar. At its core, residential solar and distributed power are very libertarian ideals; if I want to put solar on my home and disconnect from the grid, why should I have to overcome an overwhelming system of industry-imposed barriers and regulations to do so? I think that as the technology becomes more cost effective, that message will resonate more and more to those who hold progressives, conservative and libertarian views. People will begin to see that the incumbent energy infrastructure disincentivizes you from being energy independent, and I think the majority of people will be pretty pissed once they come to that realization.

Residential solar in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CA: Why should the average American care about clean and renewable energy development?

TP: We always strive for innovation in every part of our lives. We aren’t still using rotary phones because there is better, faster and more efficient technologies available. We are still using the same basic technological principles to generate electricity today as we used to generate electricity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Why restrict ourselves to this archaic technology when we don’t have to? Especially when there are safer and higher paying jobs to be created in the clean energy sector.

CA: Let’s say you are passionate about protecting the environment. What kind of policies can you push for on the state and local level that can be impactful? If you are going to contact your state rep or city council member, what are some things that you can push for?

Locally, the two simple things I would really encourage folks to do is to make their homes more energy efficiency, and continue to push their local, state, and federal representatives to pass policies that support consumer access to energy efficiency and clean energy technologies and programs.

Learn More:

Scientific American has an interesting article about the future of battery storage.

Vox Video has an excellent interview with a Tea Party Republican who explains how to talk to conservatives about climate change.

PBS’s NOVA has a nice interactive that explains how solar cells work.

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