Aug 28 2023

What Policies Affect Climate Change?

What is the potential for climate change policy to affect climate change? I often discuss, here and on the SGU, the science of climate change, and specifically focus on what we can do about it, mostly by reducing our CO2 emissions. Often I get push back explicitly promoting the position that there is nothing we can really do about, so we should just let technology and economics play themselves out. This is the position of the fossil fuel industry, whose opinion on climate change may vary but always concludes with – do nothing. This may take various forms – climate change isn’t real, climate change won’t be bad, it may be happening but it’s not because of human activity, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, or whatabout China. The one thing all these positions have in common is the ultimate result – do nothing. It’s almost as if some people are starting with that conclusion and then working backward to whatever justification they can defend at the moment.

But often I get questions that reflect genuine confusion about climate change policy – is there anything “we” can really do? The “we” may be us as individuals, or our country, or the world. I do believe the most important thing we can do as individuals, those of us living in democracies, is to be knowledgeable about climate policy and vote for politicians who support good climate policy. If we don’t make it a priority why should we expect our elected leaders to? In a recent Pew survey, 71% of Americans said they thought that policy to address climate change is either a top or important priority. In the same survey 74% of Amercians support US involvement in international efforts to address climate change.

But what is good climate policy? For most people who raise the issue for me the first thing that comes up is subsidies for electric vehicles, almost as if this one policy is the poster-child for climate change action. But this is arguably the least effective and least important climate policy. Subsidies may have been useful a decade ago to kickstart a new industry, but I think we are past that point. Here are some of the policies that can have a significant, even dramatic effect, on future CO2 release.

BEV Infrastructure – We seem  to be just getting out of the early adopter phase of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), which are starting to go mainstream. As the technology improves and mass-production with competition kicks in, prices are coming down into parity with ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles. Rather than giving subsidies, we need to address the reasons that most people have for being dubious about switching to this new technology. The number one reason for caution is range anxiety. We already have BEVs with ranges more than enough for most drivers, but what can help is more public chargers. Often adoption of a new technology is down to infrastructure. And infrastructure is something that government policy can affect. The industry if moving in the right direction by itself, but, if we want to accelerate the transition to BEVs (and minimizing climate change is all about time) then building lots of public charging stations is the way to go. There is money for this in the recent infrastructure bill, but more is better.

Grid Upgrades – Speaking of infrastructure, the electrical grid is hugely important in our transition to green energy production. If we want to maximize low carbon sources of electricity, that will include lots of wind and solar. These are intermittent sources that function better the more integrated they are over a large and robust grid. A wind farm in an ideal location, for example, may be intended to provide energy to a city a few hundred miles away. They need a grid connection. Even just connecting lots of distributed sources of power requires lots of grid connections, and this is starting to be a limiting factor in building new green energy. There are two things government policy can do to help this situation.

One is simple – provide funding for building up the grid. This, again, is a simple question of shared infrastructure. But there is also a huge regulatory factor here, especially in the US (I am less familiar with the issues in other regions, but there may be similar problems). In the US an electrical grid will likely pass through numerous regulatory districts (local, state, and federal). This means any utility company wanting to build new power lines for that wind farm they are building has to navigate a patchwork of regulations and deal with NIMBY issues galore, with one local jurisdiction having the ability to kill the entire project. The solution has already been proposed – give a single federal agency the authority to override all local jurisdictions when it comes to grid infrastructure, under the principle of eminent domain. There is precedence for this, and it can be done with a single piece of legislation.

Invest in nuclear, hydro, and geothermal – And speaking of regulatory tangles, we need to streamline the process for approving new nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal projects, including closed loop hydro for grid storage. We also need to invest in these technologies, and make it more inviting for private industry to make such investments. The Inflation Reduction Act did just that, and has worked better than anyone predicted. Private industry was eager to get into green energy, as soon as they new the money would be there for loans and there would be some tax incentives to make the investments more secure. That is an example of government policy that works, and not by “picking winner and loser” but by simply providing incentives to industry (rather than, say, subsidizing the fossil fuel industry).

These power sources also have the advantage of being large centralized sources of power, so that can  plug into existing connections to the grid. If we want utility companies to shut down coal-fired power plants and build low carbon power sources, these options are likely best.

Facilitate residential and private solar – A lot of our future solar energy infrastructure can be on rooftops. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit here  – it distributes energy production to where it is used, and it does not require any new land. It also can potentially provide cheaper energy for users. But rooftop solar is hugely dependent on local policy, especially net metering. Regardless of how you pay for your solar panels, you are essentially buying the electricity that they produce. But solar energy production does not happen at the same time as demand, which means when you produce more power than you need you send the excess to the grid, and when you need more power than you produce you buy electricity from the grid. A good net metering law means that residential solar energy producers get 100% full credit for the electricity they send to the grid, which they can use to buy electricity back.

But utility companies often make the dubious argument that this is not fair, and they want to pay only wholesale prices for this residential-produced electricity. They want to pay pennies on the dollar when they buy electricity from producers, then charge them full price when they sell it back to them. This also means that solar produces are paying twice for most of their electricity – they pay for it from the solar panels, then they pay for it again when they get it back from the utility company. This is not workable, and therefore bad net metering laws essentially kill the residential solar market. Keep in mind, utility companies are not paying money to residential producers, just giving them credit they can exchange for electricity when they need it. Further, this scheme does not increase infrastructure costs for the utility company as they often falsely claim.

Here is an area where policy can have a direct and profound impact on the speed with which we adopt green energy technology.

Don’t be Texas – Texas, it turns out, is experiencing a green energy boom. Last year 26% of the energy produced in Texas came from wind and solar, and these industries are growing. This is partly because wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new energy, but also because of the geography of Texas which is amenable to these two forms of energy. Wind and solar are good for the economy of Texas, keeping their electricity more affordable, and arguably has saved them from the worst of their energy woes during heat waves and other extreme weather. So why are Texas politicians turning against wind and solar? Even forgetting climate change, it’s not good economic policy and will cost the state billions.

Texas politicians are considering and passing policies specifically designed to prop up the oil and gas industry and to make it harder for new wind and solar. In addition to subsidies for gas-powered plants, they are passing new permitting restrictions that basically make it impossible to build more wind and solar. It seems they only believe in the free market when it goes their way. Ironically, they are providing a stark example of how powerful government policy can be in turning up or down the adoption of green energy technology vs fossil fuel. If you want to see why government policy matters, look at Texas.

There is more but these are likely the big policy decisions that can have the largest impact on the speed with which we decarbonize our energy and transportation industries. Policy does matter.

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