Carbon-free – are we at a tipping point?

Julia Hamm reflects on 20 years with SEPA and the ways in which the
sector and organization have changed.

When I started in 1999, SEPA wasn’t the Smart Electric Power Alliance:
it was the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group (UPVG) before becoming the Solar Electric
Power Association (version 1.0 of the SEPA acronym) in 2000. At the time, there
was no meaningful grid-connected solar industry in the US, with just a handful
of players doing demonstration projects supported by grant funding. A 50kW
solar project was considered massive in size, and the average cost for a
residential system was $10 per watt. Renewable energy didn’t even make it into
the EIA’s pie chart for US electricity generation sources, as seen in the table

Little by little, all those things have changed. The overall US
electricity generation portfolio has become significantly cleaner, with coal
dropping to 27% and renewables increasing to almost 20% in 2018, with continued
rapid growth on the horizon.

Of all the changes and industry trends I’ve witnessed over the past two
decades, I believe the most significant is one we are witnessing today: voluntary
utility commitments to get to 100% clean or carbon-free energy within the next
two-and-a-half to three decades.

Many states, municipalities, corporations and other entities have also
made similar pledges. But, to me, voluntary commitments from investor-owned
utilities in vertically integrated states, in particular, are the real
indicators that this transition is happening — and is about to accelerate. It’s
the tipping point we’ve been anticipating since I entered the industry in 1999.

Take the case of Xcel Energy, who took the lead in announcing their
plans to be carbonfree by 2050 late last year. Xcel recently released a report
detailing how they closely examined key climate reports and worked with
stakeholders to determine how best to align their company goals with those of
the Paris Climate Agreement. Xcel’s commitment is significant and requires them
to add thousands of MWs of renewables, pursue strategic electrification, and
make critical investments in grid infrastructure.

In Idaho, only three years ago, president and CEO Darrel Anderson told
stockholders he didn’t believe Idaho Power would ever be able to go to 100%
clean power. However, this past March, Anderson announced a plan to get to 100%
carbon-free energy by 2045, with the first of nine coal and gas plants closing
at the end of this year.

The same is true for MidAmerican Energy. There are no current state
mandates in Iowa for carbon-free energy, nothing requiring a change in energy
sources. Instead, 91% of customers polled in the service territory said that
it’s important for energy to be produced from carbon-free sources, and armed
with that customer mandate, MidAmerican is bringing 2,591MW of wind energy
online in the next few years as part of their goal to reach 100% clean energy

Historically, the responsibility of reaching a carbon-free future fell
more on the shoulders of state and federal regulators and government, but as
we’re seeing today, the electric power industry is making serious commitments
to address climate change and the concerns of customers.

As part of SEPA’s continuous evolution to ensure we can provide the most
valuable thought leadership, unbiased information and practical solutions to
the electric power industry, our Board of Directors recently adopted a bold new
vision for the organization: a carbon-free energy system by 2050.

The road there won’t be easy, and it will take the collective effort of
stakeholders globally to be successful.

As we conduct our work we are operating under certain guiding principles

  • Significant increases in clean energy,
    generated from existing and new technologies, are needed to achieve a
    carbon-free future.
  • Reductions in carbon emissions will occur as
    the transportation, building and industry sectors become more electrified.
  • Investments in the transmission and
    distribution system are foundational to achieving a carbon-free energy future.
  • Changes to the power sector need to evolve in a
    manner that is safe, reliable, secure and affordable.

As exciting as the last 20 years have been in this industry, I am even
more excited about what is yet to come.

As Bill Gates says, we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. So, will it take us until 2050 to get to carbon-free energy? Only time will tell.

Editor’s note: Julia Hamm is the Luminary for the Decarbonizing the Grid Knowledge hub at DISTRIBUTECH International. You can hear her speech, titled “Carbon-free Energy Future: How do we get there?” on Tuesday, January 28 from 10:30-11:00 in San Antonio, Texas. Register for the event here.

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