Presidents column: August 2018

ISES’ US Section Pushes for Climate Action at its Annual Conference


The American Solar Energy Society, the U.S. Section of ISES, held its annual conference,  Solar 2018, at the University of Colorado, Boulder on 5-8 August. Over 300 people from all over the U.S. and some international locations gathered for the 4-day event to present research results and learn of the latest technology and solar program developments underway in the U.S. The plenary sessions were organized around high-level cross-cutting themes. As you will see later in this newsletter, I was invited to present a talk at a plenary addressing the theme “Energy Resilience, Preparedness, and Recovery”. I and my fellow speakers, Dr. David Fahey of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Hunter Lovins of Natural Capital Institute discussed the climate challenge, the expected weather disruptions and natural disasters that are likely to result (and the evidence that climate change is already affecting our weather systems and the need to be prepared for further disruptions), and the opportunities for rapid acceleration of renewable energy deployments to mitigate further disruptions in the future. To be sure, the challenge is daunting: Dr. Fahey showed the rapid growth of energy consumption over the past decades that has resulted in substantial increases in annual carbon emissions, despite the introduction of renewable energy technologies in the energy system. I showed that, to limit global warming to no more than 1.50C above preindustrial levels, carbon emissions should be one half of today’s level within the next two decades, and anthropogenic carbon emissions should essentially be eliminated well before the end of this century. However, the reality is that emission levels, after leveling off the past couple of years, are now increasing.

The good news is that this challenge is being met aggressively through grass-roots actions throughout the world.  For example just this week, as reported by the Sierra Club and other organizations, the legislature of the State of California passed landmark legislation that commits the state to get 100% of its electricity from renewable and zero-carbon sources by 2045. Furthermore, as Hunter showed in her plenary talk, technology innovation, societal entrepreneurship, and economic conditions will see us reducing carbon emissions dramatically, especially in the electricity sector, over the next several decades. 

The bad news, however, is that strong political forces, motivated by populist fervor driven by economic inequalities throughout many industrialized nations are now trying to move our transforming energy economy in the wrong direction. We have talked earlier about how U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement in order to appease a small but vocal populist base that depends heavily on the use of fossil fuels to meet our energy demands. Just recently he has also pushed for lower fuel economy standards in the automobile industry and replaced former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (which represented the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement) with what is euphemistically called the Dirty Power Plan. This plan protects uneconomical coal-fired power plants from closure in lieu of modernization. As a result of these two recent decisions, decarbonizing the energy system in the U.S. will be placed on the back burner. These decisions purely by politics with no scientific or economic justification, will not only have long-term negative consequences on mitigating climate change impacts, which are widely recognized as significant societal issues of ever-increasing importance, but will have negative economic impacts on the political “base” that Trump claims he is helping the most. This is because the coal jobs he is trying to protect and even to resurrect, jobs he claims were lost thanks to Obama’s Clean Power Plan, realistically will not come back, at least not for very long, under Trump’s replacement plan. The long-term economic value of transforming America’s coal and gas work force into a clean energy workforce was one of the key platforms promoted by Trump’s opponents in the 2016 election. However, that message did not make it to the base that supported Trump; the coal industry in particular, and the fossil industry in general, successfully lobbied for an artificial lifeline which Trump is now offering through his backward policies. The sad result is that the economic opportunities afforded by the rapid growth of clean energy technologies will now be missed by the very people who could most benefit from them.

The key challenge for ASES, as well as for ISES and for all of our likeminded partners, is to find the right message to send to the audience that needs it the most. Certainly, the messages that were presented at Solar 2018 were inspirational and motivational, but we need to find better ways to get these messages to the sectors of our population, including our decision makers, in ways that result in positive change. I do not envy the future outlook of the coal miner or the operators of coal-fired power plants, or the makers of future gasoline-guzzling automobiles. I am deeply frustrated with a so-called leader who makes decisions to prop up technologies that should not, cannot, and will not be tolerated by future generations, just to appease a populist base who is taking comfort in his efforts to save their jobs in the short term yet offering no alternatives for their futures. I call on all of us to find the most effective ways, through our communications and through the decisions we make when we vote for our national leaders, to get these simple yet important messages into the mind-set of those who are deciding on how we will meet our future energy needs. It is quite clear from the panel discussions at Solar 2018 that time is running out for making the right decisions.

This article was written by:

Dr. David Renné

ISES Immediate Past President