February 11, 2021

Party Like It's 2035

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

President Biden has set a goal of reaching 100% clean electricity in the U.S. by 2035. That means cutting all carbon emissions from the entire electricity sector in just 15 years. So... is that even possible? And if so, how do we pull it off? This week, we talk to experts who say that goal just might be in reach – if we act now.

Calls to action:


Further reading:

Want to read up on a zero-carbon grid? You can find all the studies mentioned in this week’s episode, here:


And don’t forget to check out A Matter of Degrees, the climate podcast hosted by Dr. Leah Stokes and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson.

If you take an action we recommend in one of our episodes, do us a favor and tell us about it! We’d love to hear how it went and what it felt like. Record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. We might use it in an upcoming episode.

Where to Listen

Transcript

Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg.


Rachel Waldholz: And I'm Rachel Waldholz.


Alex: And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis and how to make those things happen.


Alex: So Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, the normal co-host of How to Save a Planet, is out this week. She's off doing her other planet-saving jobs, which she does from time to time. But do not fear, because we are in the expert hands of How to Save a Planet reporter Rachel Waldholz. Welcome, Rachel.


Rachel: Hi, Alex.


Alex: You know, our producer Felix Poon had this idea of, like, do you want to have air horns when we welcome you on the show?


Rachel: [laughs]


Alex: And I was like, "Oh, come on. We're too dignified for air horns." But, like, do you know what I was thinking?


Rachel: Yes, what were you thinking?


Alex: I was thinking, like, [bleep] it. Let's do the air horns.


[air horn SFX]


Rachel: [laughs] So do I get air horns every time I come on the show from now on?


Alex: I'm not sure. I think it's a case-by-case basis. I think I just wanted us to get the vibe going early. We're about to party like it's 2035.


Rachel: Yes, 2035.


[airhorn SFX]


Alex: [laughs] All right. So now that we've established the mood, let's move on to what we're talking about today on the podcast: the year 2035.


Rachel: Yes, 2035. And we're talking about 2035 because President Joe Biden is making a very big promise about that year. This is what he said in late January, just about a week after taking office.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: We'll take steps towards my goal of achieving 100 percent carbon pollution-free electric sector by 2035. Transforming the American electric sector to produce power without carbon pollution will be a tremendous spur to job creation and economic competitiveness in the 21st century.]


Alex: So Biden is saying we're gonna cut all carbon emissions from the entire electricity sector?


Rachel: Yeah. Reaching a "carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035" means he's aiming to eliminate all carbon emissions from all power plants everywhere in the US in the next 15 years.


Alex: Well, first let me say, that deserves an air horn.


[air horn SFX]


Alex: [laughs] But also, you know, that's a really ambitious goal.


Rachel: Yeah, it's super ambitious! You know, a lot of people were really surprised during the presidential campaign when Biden adopted this goal, which he did after pressure from climate advocates. And just to put this in context, until really recently, the conversation among experts was how to decarbonize the grid by 2050. So this is bringing that timeline up much earlier.


Alex: And, you know, the aim here is really key. Like, this decarbonizing the electricity sector would be a huge, huge achievement, because generating electricity is one of the single biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States right now. You know, generating electricity is directly responsible for 27 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.


Rachel: Right. And so getting to a carbon-free grid as soon as possible, most experts agree that that will be essential if we want to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.


Alex: So it's essential. Is it possible?


Rachel: [laughs] Right.


Alex: What would it actually take to make that transition? You've been digging into that question.


Rachel: Yeah, I have. And there have been a bunch of studies just in the last year that can help us answer this. So I talked to some of the researchers involved, and what I found was both very encouraging and also pretty daunting.


Alex: And we're gonna be talking all about what you found today on the program. Can we get to a fully clean electricity system by 2035 in the United States? What would that look like? And what do we have to do to get there? That is all coming up after this short break.


***


Alex: All right. So, Rachel, today we're looking at what it would take to get the US to a zero-carbon electricity system by 2035 and whether that's even possible.


Rachel: Right. And the first thing to understand is why we're focused on electricity in the first place. And it's not just because the electricity sector itself is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions. Experts say decarbonizing electricity is also the key that makes lots of other things possible.


Leah Stokes: What clean electricity is, is it's a catalyst for decarbonization across a huge part of the economy.


Rachel: That's Leah Stokes. She's a professor at UC-Santa Barbara. She studies energy policy, and she also hosts a climate podcast called A Matter of Degrees. And Leah says we should think of decarbonizing the electricity sector as our best tool for getting the carbon out of lots of other parts of the economy.


Leah Stokes: Because we can use clean power to run our cars, to run our homes, to run parts of heavy industry. So this is a huge chunk of the problem: cleaning up the electricity system, and then using that clean power to electrify other parts of the economy. And what it allows you to do is really simplify the climate problem, right? It doesn't become all these sources from all across the economy. It says we have clean electricity, we use that electricity to power big parts of our economy, and that is the pathway forward.


Alex: Right. I mean, this just makes sense to me. Like, if we make our electricity clean, then everything else that we electrify gets cleaner too, just by definition, right?


Rachel: Exactly. If we're all driving electric cars or taking electrified public transit, and the electricity to charge those cars and buses and trains comes from zero-carbon electricity, suddenly you've cut out a big chunk of emissions from transportation. And if we're all heating our homes with zero-carbon electricity instead of burning oil in our furnaces, suddenly you've cut a ton of the emissions from buildings. But it really surprised me how big a part of the solution Leah says this could be.


Leah Stokes: When you add up all these sectors, that could be something like 70 percent or even 80 percent of our total emissions. So this is a huge chunk of the problem.


Alex: It's sort of crazy, right? Like, if we get a clean grid, and we electrify all the things we are currently talking about electrifying, like our transportation systems and our buildings and stuff, that gets us a 70 to 80 percent emissions reduction? That's bigger than I thought.


Rachel: Yeah, and to be clear, that's Leah's estimate that she gets by adding up current emissions from electricity, transportation, buildings and some of heavy industry. So you'd have to electrify a lot of the economy to get there. But yeah, the potential is huge. You know, to paraphrase our current president: decarbonizing the electricity system, it's a big effing deal.


Alex: Right. [laughs] Okay, so how do we do this? And how do we do it in 15 years?


Rachel: Yeah. So a bunch of studies just in the last year have sort of tackled exactly this. And one of the most optimistic answers came in a report that came out just last summer. It's called The 2035 Report, and it was put together by researchers at UC-Berkeley, GridLab and the policy firm Energy Innovation. Sonia Aggarwal was one of the people behind this report, and she says they were looking around and they realized that most studies looking at the electricity system were aiming for decarbonizing the system by, like, 2050. And they wondered: can we go faster than that?


Sonia Aggarwal: We all thought to ourselves, gosh, the costs of wind and solar have come down so much more quickly than many experts expected, and what if we took these lower costs now and pushed deployment to reasonable levels, given these lower costs, how quickly could we actually reach a really low share of emissions in the electricity sector in the US?


Rachel: So the team plugged those updated costs into a model of the US electricity system, and they concluded that, because the cost of wind and solar have dropped so much, we really can go a lot faster than we thought. Specifically, they found that we can get to 90 percent zero-carbon electricity in the US by 2035—while maintaining a reliable grid—with existing technologies, mostly wind, solar and battery storage.


Alex: And this is, of course, important, because essentially what they're saying is we don't need new technology. We don't need breakthroughs. We don't need a moonshot. We can get 90 percent of the way there with the technology we have on hand right now.


Rachel: Exactly. And that last 10 percent is more complicated for sure—and we'll talk about that later—but we can get 90 percent of the way there, and they found that we could do that while saving people money on their utility bills.


Alex: So worth pausing on this for a second. We can get 90 percent of the way there, and it's actually going to cost us less.


Rachel: Yeah. Sonia says the report found that we could pull off this transition in the next 15 years while cutting customers bills by about 10 percent.


Sonia Aggarwal: So that was kind of a shocking conclusion for us, because we were thinking that, you know, the costs would have come down for wind and solar and batteries, but we didn't quite realize that we would be able to achieve that type of deep decarbonization at a cost savings for customers.


Alex: So like, you know, this is something that we repeat on this podcast a lot but, like, okay, we're gonna switch to this new system of, you know, sort of electricity generation, and it's not gonna have all these other problems, which are pollution and carbon pollution and causing greenhouse gases, but it's often sort of framed as well, the catch is, like, it's gonna cost you more. And what's Sonia's saying, is that, like, actually, like, it's not gonna cost you more. It's actually gonna cost you less. So you get less global warming and you get to pay less.


Rachel: Yeah, the report found that we could retire existing coal plants and build out wind, solar and storage and it would cost less than what folks pay today.


Alex: Okay. So we're gonna replace old coal plants with new wind and solar. That's gonna get us 90 percent of the way to a completely zero-carbon grid, and it will be cheaper. How do we do all of that in 15 years?


Rachel: Yeah, so the researchers said, first of all, we'd keep all of our current zero-carbon electricity. And I think it's worth highlighting that the US currently already gets about 37 percent of our power from zero carbon sources.


Alex: Right. And 37 percent, we're a good chunk of the way there. We're over a third of the way there already.


Rachel: Right, And just to be clear, it's not like that that's all wind and solar, right? Like the biggest chunk of that is actually nuclear energy, which is about 20 percent of our current power generation. And then another big chunk is hydro, which is about 7 percent. So right now, wind and solar actually make up less than 10 percent of our current electricity mix. And so the researchers were saying, "Okay, we're starting from this 37 percent base of zero-carbon electricity. How do we replace that other 63 percent of our power?" And Sonia said, basically, we would need to roll out new wind and solar across the country at a pace we've never done before.


Sonia Aggarwal: So for the deployment of solar and wind, we're looking at, if we go back a couple of years and look at what is our best year of deploying solar or wind, what we need to do is double that rate every single year in the 2020s, and then triple that rate in the 2030s.


Alex: So, like, just to put some concrete numbers, just to make sure I understand this, if let's say we did in our best year, let's call it 100 new facilities, 100 new wind and solar facilities. Sonia is saying we have to install, instead of a hundred, we have to install 200. And we have to install 200 every year from, like, 2020 ...


Rachel: Through the 2020s.


Alex: Through the 2020s. So that's 200 in 2021, 200 in 2022, 200 in 2023. And then in the 2030s, it's 300.


Rachel: Yeah.


Alex: So she's not saying we have to do 200 in 2021, 400 in 2022.


Rachel: No, it's just what's the best we've ever done? Let's double that and stick to that level. And then we've got to triple it.


Sonia Aggarwal: So while that's a lot, and it's going to take a concerted effort, it's gonna take policy, it's going to take, you know, lots of people getting out there and building a lot of new stuff, It is not unreasonable.


Alex: See, that seems, like, fine.


Rachel: [laughs]


Alex: Like, doubling that seems like, very, very doable. Okay. So Rachel, at the beginning of this episode, you promised encouraging and daunting. So far I'd say it's mostly been encouraging with only a little smattering of daunting. Is there more daunting coming? You said there were other studies, right? This, the first one is the most optimistic.


Rachel: Yeah, so now for the daunting part. So there have been several other studies looking at how the US would get to net-zero carbon emissions, and they generally agreed with Sonia's team on the big picture, you know? So they said we can get pretty close to a carbon-neutral grid with the technology we have now, and the costs are not insurmountable, you know? In fact, they're often less than we thought.


Alex: Right.


Rachel: But one big question is: how far wind and solar can really take us. So the team that Sonia worked with said wind and solar and battery storage can get us 90 percent of the way there in 15 years. Another recent study said well, actually, it might be more complicated than that. One thing that other researchers raise is, we may actually need a lot more electricity than the 2035 Report assumed. So the team that Sonia worked with used current projections of electricity demand, assuming business-as-usual growth.


Rachel: But many researchers say that, actually, if we're really electrifying and decarbonizing the whole economy, like we talked about earlier, you know, all of our cars and homes, then we're gonna need a lot more electricity than we do today. So not only do we need to decarbonize the grid, we also need to expand it. We need to be generating a lot more power.


Alex: Right. Because this isn't the only 2035 plan out there. There's another one currently making a big splash.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Super Bowl ad: Did you know that Norway sells way more electric cars per capita than the US? Norway! [laughs]]


Alex: During the Super Bowl, General Motors ran this ad about electric vehicles, featuring Will Ferrell. GM recently announced it's planning to go all in on electric vehicles and sell only zero-emissions cars and trucks by 2035.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Super Bowl ad: GM's ultium battery is made for all types of vehicles. Soon everyone can drive an EV!]


Alex: Rachel, I'm assuming you saw that ad.


Rachel: [laughs] Oh, yes. I saw the ad, and I will admit that I was speechless. I think the word that comes to mind is "chutzpah," because as recently as last year, GM was still fighting stronger fuel efficiency standards. But it is—I mean, it's definitely good to see them getting on board.


Alex: Better late than never. And we'll see if this is just marketing or an actual commitment. But, you know, just looking at the trends and sort of the number of auto companies that are now also changing their tune like GM is, there's plenty of reasons to believe that there are going to be more electric vehicles on the road over the coming decades, which likely means we're gonna be using a lot more electricity. Certainly not less.


Rachel: Right. And all of that higher demand for electricity from EVs, from electrifying other parts of the economy, that makes all of this much more complicated. So Sonia and her team actually addressed this concern in a note in their report, you know, and they said that they found that you could still hit that 2035 goal and save consumers money, but instead of doubling our rollout of wind and solar, we'd have to go even faster. So getting to 90 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2035 would still be possible.


Alex: But, you know, there's a big difference between possible and likely.


Rachel: Exactly. A lot of things can go wrong if we're trying to move that fast. And so I was interested in this report that just came out recently. It's called the Net-Zero America report. It came out in December from researchers at Princeton University. And it digs into what are the potential problems that could get in the way, and what do we do about that. So Jesse Jenkins, he's one of the authors of the report, and he said because there's so many potential obstacles in any given path, their report lays out a number of different potential pathways to get to net-zero emissions.


Jesse Jenkins: Because all of these pathways, they're reasonably affordable, they're technically feasible, but they are enormous transformations of how we make and use energy across the entire country, every sector, every state.


Rachel: And he says that means there are a ton of potential obstacles, you know? Everything from supply chain problems to not enough trained labor. And one of the biggest potential obstacles is public opposition.


Alex: Right. Nimbyism. Not in my backyard.


Rachel: Right. I mean, the thing about wind and solar is they take up a lot of space, and they're very visible. So if we're rolling out new wind and solar and transmission lines at the speed we need to go, we're talking about building a lot of infrastructure, very fast, in a lot of people's backyards. And, you know, if there's one thing we know, it's that people don't always love change, especially fast change.


Alex: I mean, I certainly don't. [laughs]


Rachel: Right. So, you know, it's a big question of how people will react when there's a giant solar farm going in and replacing, you know, the farm next door, or the woods next door. And just the sheer amount of land that could be needed, that's something that the Princeton report really helped me understand. So to give you an example, in one scenario, the Princeton researchers said okay, what if we rely only on renewables? We phase out all of our coal and gas plants and we roll out renewables as fast as technologically possible.


Alex: Gotcha.


Rachel: And they found in that scenario, solar and wind and bioenergy, which is essentially crops grown to use as energy, they would be everywhere.


Chris Greig: To picture things, there will be very few places in the United States where you can drive and not see wind, solar and bioenergy.


Rachel: That's Chris Greig, he's another one of the authors on the report. You know, and to put this in context, Jesse Jenkins says if we aim to get power solely from renewables, onshore wind and solar farms would cover the equivalent of several states.


Jesse Jenkins: The wind farms span the same area as Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas put together. And the solar spans the same area as West Virginia and Connecticut put together.


Alex: So this is a little bit confusing Rachel because, like, in a previous episode of this very podcast, How to Save a Planet, the one where we answered our listeners' emails about trees, we also had a section where we talked about this. We talked about solar, and the footprint that it would take to go exclusively solar. And if I recall, the footprint we talked about in that episode, it wasn't as big. It was just like, I think, 13,000 square miles, like, something like the size of Hawaii. Definitely not West Virginia plus Connecticut, which are obviously much bigger.


Rachel: Yeah, that estimate came from an MIT study done in 2015. So the Princeton report is more recent, and it suggested solar would take up about twice as much land as that previous study. But again, in a scenario where we are electrifying huge swaths of the economy and powering that almost entirely with renewables.


Alex: Got it.


Rachel: And Chris Greig said, the results were surprising even to them, you know, just in terms of the sheer amount of wind and solar and transmission and other infrastructure that would need to be built.


Chris Greig: For me, as someone who probably came into the project saying to everyone, we have no idea about the scale and pace of this challenge—the scale is enormous—by the time we'd finished the study, even I was surprised by the scale and the extensive land impacts and so forth.


Alex: So even the guy who was expecting this was surprised by what he found.


Rachel: Yes, even the pessimist on the team was like, "Oh, this is a bigger challenge."


Alex: Right.


Rachel: You know, I mean, they said we are really committing to transforming the landscape of large parts of the US. But they also noted, you know, that this is something that we have done before.


Jesse Jenkins: You drive through Iowa or Kansas, and you see endless fields of—you know, of cultivated crops, right? We transformed that landscape. We've destroyed the prairies, and that was the decision that was made. And now you drive through there, and that's what you expect the landscape to look like, right? So maybe 50 years from now, you know, my grandkids or even my son will drive through these areas and see the wind farms, and that'll just be what the landscape looks like.


Alex: Right. I think the thing that stands out to me is a lot of what we're talking about here is probably taking land we're already putting to one use and putting it to a different use: power generation. And in fact, there's nothing stopping us from using the land for dual use, right? Like, there's like, you can still, like, for example, graze cattle on land that has wind turbines on it as well, right?


Rachel: Totally, yeah. And I think it's important also just to think about what we're talking about when we talk about land use, right? Like, so for wind farms, it's really a visual thing, right? Like, you can see them from really far away. But in terms of their actual footprint on the land, it's pretty limited. It's just where the turbine meets the land. And so often you can have wind turbines that coexist with crops or with livestock.


Alex: Yeah. And it's not like we've never—it's not like we aren't regularly building things that you can't see from far away. I mean, that's what we do, sort of. Like, have you ever seen a power line or a skyscraper or a billboard?


Rachel: Yeah.


Alex: I mean, not to mention, you know, lots of fossil fuel infrastructure that is very, very visible. Like, Rachel, I don't have to tell you this. Every time I go across the Hudson River from New York City to your ancestral homeland of New Jersey, I'm looking at refineries and other fossil fuel infrastructure. I think I'd be happy to swap that with wind turbines and solar panels.


Rachel: Are you saying that the Jersey Turnpike is not, like, a lovely landscape that we should preserve exactly as is? I think I'm offended. Yeah, I mean, certainly, fossil fuel infrastructure in the US currently takes up a ton of land, right? I mean, not to mention the health impacts of living near fossil fuel plants. But the point they're making is that we will have to build a lot of infrastructure very fast, and it will be very visible to a lot of folks who don't really see their power sources right now.


Alex: Yeah. And we really don't want to minimize this. There will be trade offs here. Sure, we can put solar farms up on former cornfields and gas refineries, but we will also have to use public land, desert ecosystems devoted to solar farms, woods cleared, views destroyed. Lots is going to have to change, and pretending people will just go along happily with that change for the greater good of limiting climate change, that would be foolish.


Rachel: Yeah. You know, and we've already seen protests in places where a lot of wind and solar are going up. So that's what Jesse and Chris are trying to account for. And in fact, they think some of the biggest challenges of getting to a zero-carbon grid might be the political challenge of getting public buy-in and getting communities to embrace this change.


Chris Greig: You've got to say to yourself, earning the public right to do this, having communities not just passively tolerate or accept these large deployments of wind and solar and transmission, but actually embrace it, I think, that's what it's going to take. So a social license, a social buy-in like we've not seen before.


Rachel: In other words, they're saying we need to take the human factor into consideration, you know? And what does that mean? Well, these guys say that, given the potential for public opposition and other challenges, and how that might slow deployment of wind and solar, we need to keep as many options open as possible. And that includes some options that make some climate advocates pretty queasy.


Alex: We're gonna dive into what those options are and how they look right after this break.


***


Alex: Welcome back. Today, my colleague, Rachel Waldholz and I are answering the question: can we get to a carbon-neutral electricity grid by 2035, as president Joe Biden has pledged to do? And Rachel, you're diving into some of the studies that answer that question.


Rachel: Yeah. And basically, you know, all of these studies agree that we need to build wind and solar power as fast as humanly possible. They all agree on that. But they also agree that wind and solar and storage, they aren't enough. You know, wind and solar are variable sources. They depend on weather conditions. So you always have the question of what do you do when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, and especially when both of those things are happening at the same time. So this is Jesse Jenkins, who worked on that Princeton Net-Zero America report.


Jesse Jenkins: While wind and solar are low-cost and scalable, mature technologies, they need to be complemented by technologies that are not weather dependent, that are available on demand, anytime of the year, for as long as we need them. I call those "firm" generating technologies in my research, and if you don't have a set of firm technologies to complement the weather-dependent resources, then it's very challenging to reliably manage the electricity supply and demand.


Alex: No matter the scenario, like, even Sonia's scenario, the most optimistic study that you talked about?


Rachel: So even in the scenario we talked about at the beginning of the episode, where wind and solar and storage would get us about 90 percent of the way there, there's still that last 10 percent slice.


Alex: But I thought that's what the batteries were for.


Rachel: Yeah, exactly. So the first sort of line of defense is certain kinds of storage. And battery storage is really good if you need to back up for hours or even days. But the kinds of batteries we have right now aren't really good if it's days or weeks where your wind and solar power generation for whatever reason is lower than you expected.


Alex: Hmm. So if you have, like, a—you know, if you have, like, several weeks of super cloudy days without much wind.


Rachel: Yeah. You can even have big, persistent weather patterns affecting a whole region, or even a whole continent, right? So you need to have other options.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Rachel: And ideally, you aren't running these sources all the time, but you can turn them on and off when you need them. And right now, the most common source of backup for renewables is natural gas.


Alex: Hmm. Which is, of course, a fossil fuel.


Rachel: Right. And so if we want to be carbon-free, obviously we can't use natural gas for that.


Alex: Right.


Rachel: So we need good zero-carbon options for firm generation. And in the Princeton study, they looked at one scenario where they said, "Hey, what if we can't roll out wind and solar faster than we have historically? Maybe for some of the reasons that we've talked about."


Alex: People!


Rachel: [laughs] Exactly. People. You know, in that case, we might need to get more than half of our power from these other sources. You know, not from wind and solar.


Alex: More than half of our power from these other sources. Half is 50 percent, which is a lot bigger than 10 percent.


Rachel: Exactly. So in some scenarios, these technologies are potentially a very big piece of the puzzle. The problem is, right now, most of these technologies aren't ready yet.


Alex: Right. So we need to invest in some moonshots after all.


Rachel: Yes. Yes. This is that last 10 percent problem.


Alex: Right. 10 to 50 percent depending which scenario comes out.


Rachel: Exactly.


Alex: All right, so let's talk about some of these moonshots.


Rachel: And I wouldn't call them all moonshots. You know, I'd say some of these are more moonshot-y than others. So Jesse and Chris talked me through some of them. One of the first options is hydrogen. Depending on how you make the hydrogen, it's carbon neutral. And so one way to make it is to use renewable energy to split water.


Alex: So then you use the hydrogen as a fuel.


Rachel: Exactly.


Alex: So you get your energy from water. That sounds good. [laughs]


Rachel: Right. And that's one option that's probably less moonshot-y. You know, we know that the technology works, the challenge is bringing it to scale.


Alex: Got it. Okay.


Rachel: So another option is different forms of geothermal energy.


Alex: Right. I read an article about this. It's this really cool technology. And one kind of geothermal that I read about, basically you use these sort of advanced drilling technology—a lot of which has been developed because of the fracking boom—and you go deep, deep, deep below the surface of the earth, like over a mile to where it's super hot from the magma down there, the molten stuff that's underneath the Earth's crust, and then you use that heat to create energy and electricity. It's really cool. But ...


Rachel: But again, not yet a commercially-viable technology that we can use today. And then there potentially could be new forms of nuclear power.


Alex: And we talked about advanced nuclear a little bit in the episode we did previously on nuclear power. Right now, nuclear is really expensive to build and it takes way too long, but proponents say we can figure out new ways to build nuclear power plants, which in theory would be smaller and safer and easier to build than our current technology. But again, still in development.


Rachel: Right, yeah. And then finally, there's carbon capture and sequestration, which generally means continuing to burn a fossil fuel like natural gas, and then capturing the carbon emissions and pumping them underground to store forever, basically. So those are some of the most viable sort of last-piece, moonshot-type things currently being worked on. But as we said, none of them are where wind and solar is right now. You know, cheap and ready to go. All these systems are still somewhere between theoretically possible and currently existing, but way too expensive to deploy at scale.


Alex: And partly for those reasons, some of these technologies are sort of controversial. You know, lots of climate advocates, for example, see carbon capture as this fake promise that the fossil fuel industry uses to maintain the status quo, right?


Rachel: It's sort of a get out of jail free card, yeah.


Alex: Yeah. They get to keep polluting, but then always point to like, "No, no, no. We're developing this carbon capture technology that's gonna take all the carbon away." Small print, "Who knows when it'll be ready?" And nuclear, of course, comes with all the baggage that we've discussed in our nuclear episode and elsewhere. It's just a very divisive issue. People love it, and people hate it.


Rachel: Yeah. And I mean, to be clear, there are very good reasons to be skeptical of these technologies. You know, advanced nuclear has been "just around the corner" for years now, and the only commercial carbon capture and sequestration project attached to a power plant in the US just recently shut down.


Alex: Yeah, exactly.


Rachel: But the point that Chris and Jesse are making is that we need some of these technologies to work so that we have good zero-carbon options to complement wind and solar. And so they say we need to be investing in all of them—right now.


Jesse Jenkins: If we invest in all of them today, I'm very confident that we'll have probably several of those solutions ready by 2030 to scale, and play a big role in the next two decades, and to get us all the way to a hundred percent carbon-free electricity. But if we don't do anything and we just sort of let the market do its thing, we're gonna get a lot of wind and solar and natural gas, and we'll be stuck with our natural gas power plants as our firm backup for wind and solar, and that'll prevent us from getting all the way to 100 percent carbon free.


Alex: Hmm.


Rachel: So they basically said, you know, it's not a choice between wind and solar or CCS or nuclear, it's a choice between all of these potentially carbon-neutral options and fossil fuels.


Alex: That makes sense. Unless we sort of actively push for something new, we're just gonna use what we have at hand.


Rachel: Yeah.


Alex: But I get it, you know, it's a very unnerving feeling, right? Like, we're saying something will come along, but we don't know what it is yet. And so in the meantime, we just gotta place a lot of bets and hope one of them pays off.


Rachel: Yeah. And that was one of the big sort of messages they were trying to get across was like, please, let's place lots of bets, all of the bets now, so that some of them pay off when we need them in the 2030s.


Alex: But I mean, you know, if you look at our history, history suggests that something will work out. You know what I mean? We invested in wind and solar before they were ready. And then eventually we got them to the place where they're working out now. And so history suggests that something will come along, even though it's just a really unnerving place to be in when it hasn't come along yet.


Rachel: Yeah. Well, and I asked exactly this to Jesse Jenkins, you know? I asked, given his work on this report and sort of the uncertain position that lots of these technologies are in, and the threat of public opposition plus all of the other potential roadblocks, you know, I asked him, does he think we're gonna pull this off?


Jesse Jenkins: You know, I have no idea. [laughs] You know, I certainly wouldn't say I'm ...


Rachel: [laughs] That's not the encouraging answer.


Jesse Jenkins: I mean, I certainly wouldn't say I'm confident. I think the challenges are very real. The thing that gives me hope is the change that we've seen over the last 10 years. You know, I've been working on energy issues for about 15 years, and in that time, you know, wind and solar have gone from a blip on the radar to 10 percent of US electricity and the vast majority of any new-build infrastructure that we're putting on the grid today. And they've gone from expensive alternative energy sources to this, in many cases, the cheapest way to get electricity anywhere in the country. And that's thanks to previous policy commitments. A whole bunch of scattershot piecemeal efforts, right? Not a coordinated national transition, but a bunch of states and other countries and leading companies deciding to buy wind power and solar power to power their industries and pay a little bit more, households deciding to do the same thing, right? Little bits of investment along the way that helped build and scale these industries, and transform them into, you know, potential juggernauts.


Jesse Jenkins: And so that's just a fundamentally different technological reality today than it was 10 years ago. And it makes the political reality and the industrial—you know, the interest of capital and industry fundamentally different than it was 10 years ago. So these things build on themselves, and the momentum can gather, and the impossible can become the inevitable over time.


Alex: Yeah. The impossible becoming the inevitable is like one of those things that is—it seems so weird, and then sort of it happens and you're like, wow. I mean, I think partly we're in that moment right now. Like, it seems to me somewhat inevitable that we are going to have a carbon-neutral grid at some point. And you know, just like five years ago or 10 years ago, I don't think I would have said that.


Rachel: I was about to say, I don't think you would have spoken those words even maybe two years ago. So I think we all certainly hope that we are in one of those moments where the impossible becomes the inevitable.


Alex: Right. But I guess that brings us to a question that we ask at the beginning of every episode. How do we make those things happen? So, like, yes, maybe they're inevitable, but that doesn't mean that they're inevitable on the timeline that we need them to happen. So, like, how do we make these changes happen on a timeline that we need?


Rachel: Well, all of the researchers I spoke with were very clear that we need some kind of policy to drive this change. You know, the market alone isn't going to do it fast enough. So the question is, what might those policies look like, you know? And as Jesse Jenkins said, it's likely going to be a mix of many different policies. But one policy in particular is kind of interesting. So during the presidential campaign, Joe Biden came out in favor of this idea. It's called a clean electricity standard. It's an idea that was originally championed by Washington Governor Jay Inslee in the Democratic primary. And while the Biden administration so far hasn't said whether they're actually gonna try to pursue this approach in Congress, it's an idea that has some momentum right now in climate policy circles. So, for instance, Leah Stokes, who we spoke to at the beginning of the episode, she's really excited about this idea.


Leah Stokes: Well, I'm a big fan of clean electricity standards. And what they basically do is they say, we are going to have X percent clean power by this date. So we could say we are going to have 100 percent clean electricity in the United States by 2035. And that requires all the utilities, all the people who make the electricity, to start making a difference and making choices, working towards that goal.


Rachel: And this idea of a clean electricity standard, it builds on a policy that has actually worked in a lot of American states. You know, a lot of states and cities actually already have these clean electricity standards or similar policies. Often they're called renewable portfolio standards. And basically states have passed laws saying, you know, we are required to get 25 or 30 or 45, or even a hundred percent clean electricity by a certain date. And Leah says these policies have actually proved really effective at driving deployment and innovation.


Alex: Right. Some of these policies are probably part of the reason that we are at 37 percent carbon-free already.


Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. And Leah says in practice, these standards can work in a couple different ways.


Leah Stokes: Congress could pass a law that says utilities across the country have to make more and more clean power until they hit 100 percent by 2035. And it could be designed so that every utility starts where they are today. And, you know, if they don't make their annual targets, then they can potentially buy basically credits from other utilities that are over-performing their annual targets, and they can also pay a penalty to the government if they don't make their targets. So that's how the policy works in practice, but it's basically a rule. It's a standard. It says, "Hey, this is what we're gonna do, so everybody start marching in line."


Rachel: And Leah actually just put out a report outlining some of the different ways this policy could look in practice. And I should also mention that Sonia Aggarwal, who we spoke to in this episode and who was one of the people behind the 2035 Report, she also wrote a paper that recommends this approach. And she now works in the Biden administration as a member of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. So we know at least some members of the Biden administration are thinking about this.


Alex: And I just want to sort of say like, there's I'm sure a bunch of listeners who are listening and being like, "Yep, okay. That's it. That makes sense." And then there's probably some small subset who are like, "Not a regulatory mandate! What about a price on carbon?" [laughs] And for you, our subset of listeners that are deep in the weeds on sort of like preferred policy choices in spurring the innovation that we need, I promise you we'll come back to this at some point in the future on, like, carbon pricing versus mandates. So there's definitely a future How to Save a Planet episode that will be talking about a price on carbon and cap and trade, and various other forms of policy interventions and what their strengths and weaknesses are.


Rachel: Yeah. But I think also, you know, another thing that I took away from these conversations is that yes, absolutely, state level and, of course, federal level policy in the US is incredibly important, and would be very helpful at driving this change. But also, you know, even if those standards are passed at some point, like, eventually all these projects actually have to get built somewhere on the ground in somebody's backyard.


Alex: Yes.


Rachel: And so also this transition is going to depend on the decisions that are made in all of these communities all over the country. And Chris and Jesse talked about this a lot. You know, they said one of the best things that you can do is just be an enthusiastic advocate for renewable projects near you.


Jesse Jenkins: And so that's the only thing I think that will get us there, is if we just start rolling the boulder down the hill in every single one of these sectors. And that's gonna take advocacy, it's gonna take clarity about what we need to do, and it's gonna take consensus of enough of us to push the ball. And over time, those things will change the landscape.


Alex: Rachel, this was a super helpful recap. And I believe it is time for our calls to action, or should I say our call to action, because we only have one.


Rachel: Yeah. You know, our call to action this week is to check out this idea of a clean electricity standard. Leah, for instance, who we talked to in this episode has just rolled out a huge sort of proposal for what this would look like at the federal level. And so we will link to her report about a clean electricity standard in the show notes and of course in our newsletter, which you should all subscribe to by going to howtosaveaplanet.show.


Alex: Right. And we actually asked her, like, sort of like, what should we tell our audience to do? Like, what do you think is like a—you know, something that needs supporting? And what did she tell you?


Rachel: And she said, there is just one thing: just support a clean electricity standard. So this is her preferred policy approach.


Alex: [laughs] She doesn't want to muddy the waters with anything else. So we are going to link to her write-up of what a clean electricity standard should look like. And we will keep abreast of whether or not it actually starts making its way into Congress, and becomes something that people are gonna start voting on.


Rachel: Yeah.


Alex: If you want to check out the studies that we have discussed in today's episode, we will also link to those. You can find those links in our show notes, or, of course, in our newsletter. And if you take any of our suggested actions. If you read this clean electricity standard, you decide to make some calls about it, let us know. Send us an email, or better yet record yourself on a voice memo and send us that. We are at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. And if you're wondering, is that "howtosaveaplanet" with the number two or the word "to?" It's both. You can follow us also on Twitter and Instagram, @how2saveaplanet. That's how—the number 2—saveaplanet.


Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.


Rachel: And me, Rachel Waldholz, filling in for Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


[air horn SFX]


Rachel: Our reporters and producers are me, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd, and Felix Poon. Our intern is Ayo OtI.


Alex: Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


Rachel: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger.


Rachel: Our superhero fact-checker this episode is Claudia Geib.


Alex: Thanks for listening, we'll see you all next week.