U.S. Faces 'Critical Time' for Climate Change Action

Duke experts in energy, economics and the environment brief media on bills before Congress

Climate briefing
Climate briefing

Two bills under consideration in Washington D.C. place the United States at a critical moment in its battle to mitigate the ravages of climate change, three Duke experts said Wednesday.

Both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill contains items key to the nation’s response to climate change.

On Wednesday, three Duke experts on climate, economics and technology discussed the bills and their potential impact on the reduction of carbon emissions, the need to hasten energy technology transfer, the role electric car ownership can play, and myriad other issues. They did so in a virtual media briefing with reporters.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:

Significance of two bills for United States’ response to climate change

Lori Bennear, associate professor of energy, economics and policy

“These bills are critical for our ability to successfully respond to the challenge that climate change presents to the United States, and indeed to the entire world.”

“These bills … provide critical funding that can facilitate both the development of new technologies and the rapid adoption at scale of existing technologies including solar and wind power and other forms of renewable energy; electrification of durables like cars and water heaters in your home and other equipment that uses electricity and natural gas.”

It provides a lot of funding to really do this at scale and at speed that’s required right now to meet this challenge.”

“It’s not hopeless. With these kinds of significant investments the United States can harness the resources we have – at our research universities … at our national labs and in the private sector to actually confront this challenge.”

Timothy Johnson, professor of the practice, energy and the environment

“It’s certainly important as a start. You think about the sources of U.S. carbon emissions. About 25 percent comes from electric power generation. Almost 30 percent comes from transportation. Another 23 percent comes from industry and then the remainder is from homes, businesses as well as agriculture.”

“The big-ticket items address power and transportation. Within power, the signature component there … is what’s known as the Clean Energy Performance Plan. This is a federal level plan that would incentivize clean energy production by U.S. utilities. It would actually pay utilities to increase year over year the amount of clean energy they produce and actually penalize them if they don’t hit certain growth targets in that area.”

“Importantly, the infrastructure bill, which is set for a vote on (Sept.) 27th, sets aside quite a bit of money for grid enhancements which are critical for increasing the amount of renewable power generation in the US.”

“Are they all we need? No. There’s always a danger that should both bills pass, that we’d say ‘hey, we’ve done enough’ because these are huge political lifts. As a start, they’re the most significant pieces of climate legislation that we’ve seen.”

Eric Rohlfing, executive in residence, Duke Energy Initiative

“It’s a critical moment. We’ve been treading water … for some time now. These bills that are before Congress, and one other that I’ll mention which is the annual budget appropriation, which has a significant amount of impact on decarbonization, it’s just critical. It’s a critical time. The technical challenges associated with decarbonization … are significant. We in a developed country like the United States benefit from abundant and inexpensive energy that has been driven by fossil fuels for the last century or more.”

“Now we are trying to change that system. One of my ex-colleagues … likened it to changing the engines on an airplane while we’re flying it. It’s that challenging.”

“It’s an enormous not only technical but also societal challenge to do it in the timeframe by 2050.”


What is most promising in the bills

Timothy Johnson

“The focus on the power sector … $550 billion, and $73 billion set aside for grid enhancements. Importantly, it also sets up a grid deployment authority, which sounds like another government acronym. But to build up renewables at scale in the U.S. requires moving renewable power from where it’s generated to where people are. And those two don’t necessarily overlap. So building out the power grid is essential to expanding renewables.”

“By setting up a federal coordinating agency … to help break down some of the jurisdictional roadblocks and coordinate transmission buildup, that’s significant.”

Lori Bennear

“We can’t underestimate the challenges of the transmission infrastructure that would be needed if we do deep decarbonization. The location where we might put our wind farms … right down the spine of the great plains. Terrific wind potential, but you’ve got to move all those electrons to where the people are living in California and New York and other places.”

“The current infrastructure is built up to support the fossil fuel-based electricity generation system that we have relied on. It’s not necessarily designed to support the renewable electricity generation that we will have in the future.”

“And there’s a lot of ‘not in my backyard-ness’ about transmission infrastructure that you understand. People don’t necessarily want it to go through their neighborhood or their areas.”


Electric vehicles' role in overall goal

Eric Rohlfing

“Every decarbonization scenario that you look at starts with decarbonizing the power system and then decarbonizing transportation primarily through electric vehicles, especially for passenger-scale vehicles. So building up that infrastructure, making electrical vehicle charging access amenable and easy for everyone is absolutely essential. We have to make it as easy to charge your electric vehicle as it is to go to the gas station and fill up your tank. If we don’t do that, then we’ll never get to the point of electric vehicle penetration that we need to decarbonize the transportation system.”


President Biden’s goal of cutting emissions by 50 percent by 2030

Eric Rohlfing

“That’s an ambitious goal, as is decarbonizing by 2050. There are various scenarios that tell us exactly how to do that, but it takes an incredible amount of investment and an incredible amount of will, political will and societal will, to do it.”

“We have to accelerate how quickly we move new technologies, energy technologies or carbon capture technologies, from the laboratory to practice. That’s been a long process for energy technologies. They don’t move that quickly. They take decades, and we don’t have decades. Accelerating the transition of new technologies into the market just has to happen if we’re to achieve any of these ambitious climate goals.”

Lori Bennear

“It’s a stretch goal, but a sure way to not do it is to not start. We’ve been kicking this can down the road for a very long time. I wish we could go back to the ‘90s and do things more gradually. But we’ve missed that window.”

“So: we can spend money on the kinds of investments to decarbonize our electricity systems at scale in a rapid time horizon that are in these bills.”

“We can spend even more money to adapt to climate change because we’re unsuccessful in mitigating our emissions. So we’re going to have to live with increased hurricanes and flooding frequency and wildfires and freak ice storms in Texas and have to spend money to essentially adapt to that.”

“Given those choices, I think the administration is doing the right thing by focusing on spending money now, making these big investments in research and in science and in infrastructure to meet this stretch goal of reducing our emissions by 50 percent by 2030.”


Cutting carbon emissions raising prices of goods and services

Timothy Johnson

“In many cases now, wind, solar … are cost-competitive with fossil equivalents. It’s not true everywhere. But where you have good solar and wind resources they can be. Those costs have come down, especially solar, exponentially over the last 10 or 12 years.”

Lori Bennear

“In one form or other, we pay for this. We can pay for it through this kind of investment approach, which is coming out of federal tax dollars. We can pay for it in other ways, through increased prices for goods and services, or we can pay for it in terms of climate damages. At some level: There is no such thing as a free lunch. We’re going to be paying for it.”

Eric Rohlfing

“The goods and services question brings up what in my mind is one of the biggest challenges in decarbonizing - decarbonizing the industrial sector. There’s a lot of fossil fuels, specifically natural gas, used … in the industrial sector. Some of that may be electrified but a lot of it may not.”

“One of the biggest decarbonization challenges going forward will be actually the industrial sector.

“Things like cement. Cement is incredibly carbon intensive. How do we make cement or other building materials with a much smaller carbon footprint? We don’t know how to do that yet. So will that mean that replacement building materials that are carbon-free that replace cement are more costly? Probably. But what price do you want to pay?”


Electric vehicle equity

Timothy Johnson

“Most people with electric vehicles charge at home, overnight. That works if you have a home charger which means you have a dedicated parking space, a driveway or a garage. A lot of people don’t have that, especially lower income people don’t if they’re in an apartment building with a big parking lot, or if they’re just relying on on-street parking. So how do you enable charging for people in that situation? It’s not just subsidizing the vehicle; you have to make charging feasible.”


What happens if the legislation doesn’t pass

Lori Bennear

“The consequence of not getting this done is that the U.S. misses its opportunity to subvert damage from climate change. And we’re going to instead have to spend more money later to try to play catch-up, or spend money on adaptation. How are we going to live with the significant damages that the international panel on climate change is predicting will happen.”

Eric Rohlfing

“Without these bills passing, without any additional funding for the kind of infrastructure and science and R and D we’re talking about, then it’s business as usual. And that business as usual is just emitting carbon and driving that temperature up and suffering the consequences. This is a window of opportunity, and we have to seize it.”

Meet the experts:

Lori Bennear
Lori Bennear is an associate professor of energy, economics and policy and the senior associate dean for educational programs at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Her research focuses on evaluating environmental policies and improving methods and techniques for incorporating evaluation into the regulatory process.

Timothy Johnson
Timothy Johnson is a professor of the practice of energy and the environment in the Nicholas School of the Environment. He studies energy systems planning, with a focus on environmental quality and energy consumption.

Eric Rohlfing
Eric Rohlfing is an executive in residence at the newly merged Duke Energy Initiative and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. He joined Duke after serving as senior technical advisor for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the U.S. Department of Energy, which advances energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.