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Net Zero is Not Impossible

a blog written by Victoria Higgins, CCAN Virginia Director

A recent column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch posits that a 100% clean energy future is unrealistic, and therefore we must accept new fossil fuel facilities and runaway global warming. It isn’t, and we shouldn’t. What is unrealistic is the assertion that society can continue “business as usual” and enjoy the same quality of life in a future ravaged by climate change.  

The anti-clean energy movement rests its argument on the fact that wind and solar are variable sources of energy, meaning their output fluctuates in tandem with weather systems. This is, of course, true. This is a central consideration as we decarbonize the electric sector, but it is by no means prohibitive for meeting demand. 

First of all, wind and solar work remarkably well together. Solar’s peak output is in the summer, and wind peaks in the winter. This is true even on an hourly basis, with solar ramping up between 8 AM and 5 PM and wind taking off overnight. 

Nonetheless, wind and solar in isolation will not meet all of our energy needs – which is fine, because they aren’t designed to do that. Pro fossil-fuel interests disingenuously cast battery storage as some far-off theoretical solution, when in fact, battery storage is in wide use today as a tool to dispatch clean energy over-produced during times of lower demand. And cheaper batteries using more plentiful materials that can store energy for much longer already exist; Dominion Energy is in the process of building a 100-hour iron-air battery storage facility right now (bravo – more of that, please). 

Still, clean energy advocates – or, you know, anyone interested in breathing clean air and leaving behind a stable environment for their children – are not relying on just utility scale solar, wind, and battery storage. Any serious decarbonization effort involves investing heavily in distributed generation that can operate off grid like rooftop solar, increased and improved transmission capacity to transport clean electricity farther and faster, cost-saving energy efficiency, peak-shaving demand response programs, and myriad other current and emerging clean energy resources like geothermal. 

No one said tackling climate change will be easy. Meeting demand with clean energy will require an intense effort to build a lot of new infrastructure quickly, much of which has encountered fabricated resistance from the same fossil fuel-aligned actors who claim clean energy is insufficient. Indeed, Bloomberg reported that we will need to spend a collective $266 trillion on climate initiatives to meet global net zero goals. But creating a clean energy future is orders of magnitude easier than living on a hostile planet with volatile geopolitical powers vying for constrained resources. This scorched-Earth scenario would have us spend $2.3 quadrillion in damages by the end of the century, or more than 800% of the cost of simply doing the work now.

Put another way, in the absence of climate policy, the United States will sacrifice somewhere between 1 to 10% of GDP each year, depending on which nightmare warming scenario you are betting on. This comes from heat-related deaths, agricultural failures, and destruction wrought by natural disasters and sea level rise. And by the way, proactive climate mitigation and adaptation spending actually returns benefits in the form of good-paying jobs and economic growth. Clean energy projects create twice as many jobs as fossil fuels, and every $1 we spend on climate resilient infrastructure today returns $2 -$10 in economic benefits.

As it pertains to keeping the lights on, runaway climate change is about the worst thing that could happen. Extreme drought, wind, rain, temperature, and wildfires are the biggest risks to grid reliability. The challenge of building sufficient clean energy generation is small potatoes compared to that.

The argument for new fossil fuel infrastructure, like the proposed Chesterfield gas plant that Central Virginia’s state delegation recently denounced, also points to soaring demand from data centers as a reason why we cannot decarbonize. This is not a problem to entirely dismiss. The state legislature this year declined to even take up a bill that would mandate data centers meet stringent clean energy and energy efficiency standards, and otherwise punted on a host of proposals to put any constraints on the industry. Solutions to data center demand exist, they’re just not politically popular. Let’s be clear: that has to change, quickly.

The bottom line is that there is a wealth of literature that shows that not only is it technologically feasible to achieve a net zero economy by 2050, but we’ll save a lot of money and lives in doing so. And to get there, standing firm behind our state climate commitments by stopping new fossil fuel infrastructure buildout is a prerequisite.

Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is the first grassroots organization dedicated exclusively to raising awareness about the impacts and solutions associated with global warming in the Chesapeake Bay region. Founded in 2002, CCAN has been at the center of the fight for clean energy and wise climate policy in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC.