In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks about the clean energy transition with Emily Grubert, an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame. Grubert discusses challenges associated with the “mid-transition,” a period of the clean energy transition when both fossil fuels and clean energy infrastructure may be necessary. Grubert and Raimi examine the investments, policies, and communication strategies that could help maintain a reliable and affordable energy system during the tricky mid-transition period.
Listen to the Podcast
- The mid-transition to clean energy will see bumps in the road to net zero: “The mid-transition is the period that might be a few decades long, in which the clean energy system and the fossil energy system are both big enough to constrain each other, but not big enough to handle all energy services on their own. In that case, we anticipate that it is likely that both systems rely on each other, but also need to adapt to each other to maintain operations. We expect that this might lead to some maladaptations. It means, basically, that either end of the transition is probably easier than the middle for a variety of reasons.” (3:14)
- Good policy in the clean energy transition requires transparency: “Being clear with people about how we’re going to anticipate problems and react under each scenario to make sure that people have what they need is going to be incredibly important to making the transition work. Whether we can actually do that is a huge outstanding question, but pretending that this is going to be smooth and automatically better than what we’ve had before is a grave political error.” (18:18)
- People will need support during the mid-transition: “The mid-transition is likely to be very challenging, and we’re likely to see some bad outcomes associated with people’s personal lives, in terms of price spikes, lack of access to heat, and that type of thing. In general, this should drive us toward being biased toward service provision and ensuring that people have what they need to thrive. Whether we need to think about more creative ways or more structural ways to do that is an important conversation that we need to be having.” (28:55)
Top of the Stack
- “Designing the Mid-Transition: A Review of Medium-Term Challenges for Coordinated Decarbonization in the United States” by Emily Grubert and Sara Hastings-Simon
- Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
Today, we talk with Dr. Emily Grubert, Associate Professor of Sustainable Energy Policy at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. In today’s conversation, Emily will walk us through some of the biggest challenges that we might experience in the decades-long transition to a clean energy system. In particular, we’ll talk about the investments, policies, and communication strategies that will be needed to ensure our energy system remains reliable and affordable while climate change makes everything more difficult. Stay with us.
Emily Grubert, welcome back to Resources Radio.
Emily Grubert: Thank you so much. Glad to be here again.
Daniel Raimi: So, Emily, we’ve had you on the show before, but I think it’s been at least a couple of years.
Emily Grubert: That was before COVID.
Daniel Raimi: It was definitely before COVID. We talked in a hotel room in Boise, Idaho.
Emily Grubert: It was a good mountain background.
Daniel Raimi: It was very scenic. We’re online now, and it’s not quite as scenic, but I’m looking forward to our conversation. Even though you’ve done this once before, I think it’d be great if you could remind our audience how you got interested in working on energy issues. I know you grew up in an energy family. Was that part of it?
Emily Grubert: Definitely. I resisted it for a long time. My dad is a petroleum engineer; my mom is a water-resources engineer.
I ended up in a space where I started thinking a lot about the different types of outcomes associated with energy development. Lately, I’ve been thinking about deep decarbonization, justice—those types of things. Growing up around the oil industry, moving a lot, and seeing that in a lot of different contexts is where I got interested in this. This was punctuated by a good field trip–based class that I took as an undergraduate, where we got to visit a ton of power plants, refineries, and stuff like that. That physical piece of it has kept me interested in this.
Daniel Raimi: For those of you who don’t follow Emily on Twitter, you should, because her feed is populated with pictures of energy infrastructure from the four corners of this great country.
Emily Grubert: We recently drove by a brand new greenfield that’s going to be a 1.5-gigawatt natural gas plant. It’s close to my new house, so I’ll get that one up at some point soon.
Daniel Raimi: Emily, it would be fun to talk about energy infrastructure writ large, and we’re going to do that today in our conversation. One of the things that you’ve been thinking about a lot—and you have a great paper on this with Sara Hastings-Simon—is a concept called the “mid-transition.”
In a lot of public discourse on the energy transition, we know where we are and where we want to be in 2050 or maybe 2100, but there’s a lot that needs to happen in between now and then. There are a lot of potential challenges. Can you get us started by defining this term, “mid-transition,” and then help our listeners understand why it’s important?
Emily Grubert: The way that Sara and I are using it and trying to promote people talking about this is this: Essentially, the mid-transition is the period that might be a few decades long and in which the clean energy system and the fossil energy system are both big enough to constrain each other, but not big enough to handle all energy services on their own. In that case, we anticipate that it is likely that both systems rely on each other, but also need to adapt to each other to maintain operations. We expect that this might lead to some maladaptations. It means, basically, that either end of the transition is probably easier than the middle for a variety of reasons.
As an example, solar energy comes during specific parts of the day, and you do see that solar needs to be curtailed sometimes, because there are a bunch of baseload thermal plants that need to stay running or it’ll be hard to turn them back on again. That’s a maladaptation; the solar system needs to accommodate some of the fossil fuel operational constraints.
Similarly, a lot of gas plants have to quickly ramp up and down more times per day to accommodate the solar than they would’ve had to otherwise. You see these situations where, during the transition, both systems need to change how they run in order to accommodate each other.
Daniel Raimi: Those are great examples. Can you flesh either those examples or some other ones out a little bit more to help us understand why that matters? Why does it matter for energy-system reliability, cost, safety, or any other important outcome that we all care about while we are in the mid-transition?
Emily Grubert: From just a basic perspective, it means that we need to maintain multiple sets of infrastructure at once over a variety of different contexts. There’s the power-plant version, where a lot of deep decarbonization models suggest that you potentially do need some turbine-based, natural gas–fired backup power for a long time, because you need something that’s able to be both up and down dispatched if the wind is dead or it’s a cloudy day. During that transition, we’ll potentially require some ongoing use of chemical-energy storage that often gets billed as natural gas.
Another example from a different part of the energy system would be transportation. If you think about needing both gas stations and electric vehicle (EV) chargers, you don’t necessarily get to have a much lower density of either one of those, because you have both systems running. If you have half as many gas cars and half as many EVs, but they’re similarly distributed, then maybe you need both systems for a while.
From an overall infrastructure-intensity perspective, there are needs for these backup systems or cooperating systems. That leads you to have more than you would’ve otherwise needed, if it was just one system or the other.
From the perspective of safety and reliability, the other thing that becomes quite interesting here is that you don’t necessarily see a lot of planning as to how one system is relying on the other one. One of the things that I get a little nervous about is that this is a normative transition in the sense that we are aiming toward deep decarbonization; there’s a directionality to the transition. But a lot of the clean energy–transition conversation assumes that there’s going to be a fossil system that’s able to catch the system as it’s growing, but we don’t necessarily articulate what the clean energy system needs from the fossil system.
Going back to the power plant example, if a big build-out of wind and solar energy assumes that there’s always going to be a gas plant there to catch it in the event of a significant problem, that imposes some demand on that fossil system that may not be planned for or clearly articulated, in terms of what that system needs to be able to deliver.
A recent example that people might be familiar with is Winter Storm Uri. During the storm, there was a lot of commentary about the fact that a lot of gas plants couldn’t operate for reasons like lack of winterization or lack of availability of gas during the storm. That’s a good example of places where people assumed that the system was available to pick up during an emergency, and it wasn’t, because there hadn’t really been a deep evaluation and confirmation that those resources were available.
You could see that kind of thing happening, too, if we get to the point where you only need some of these backup resources every couple of years. Ensuring that everyone knows what is expected from each system is going to be a big challenge, but it’s a challenge that we can probably handle if we plan for it.
Daniel Raimi: Winter Storm Uri was the winter storm that created the large blackout in Texas last winter. Is that right?
Emily Grubert: Yep.
Daniel Raimi: Let’s even get more into the weeds on this particular question. Imagine a natural gas plant that only runs a couple times per year to balance intermittency in the clean energy system. Talk us through why that is hard.
Emily Grubert: Basically, when you don’t turn something on very often, you don’t necessarily realize when something’s broken. My personal example is that we recently resurrected our gasoline car, because our EV couldn’t make some of the drives that we needed to make when we were moving. Lo and behold, we go to turn on our gas car for the first time in a couple of years, and it doesn’t start. The reasons are silly—the O-rings are out, the gas went bad, or something like that.
One of the other examples people often point to is that it’s unclear whether fire sprinklers actually work. If you haven’t tested them in 15 years, there’s no real reason to believe that the water is still in there, the pressure is right, or all the pipes work right.
In the particular case that we’re talking about with gas backup for the power system, you only ever turn it on during the most dire of possible conditions. You absolutely need this thing to turn on right now, because other things are not functional for some reason. That reason probably is related to something that makes it harder to do anything that you’re trying to do. So, with this thing that you don’t test very often and probably don’t maintain that much, because it’s not very profitable and never on, you’re suddenly saying, “In this emergency situation, I need you to operate perfectly.”
No one has done this in a long time. Maybe you have operators that don’t even remember the last time you did something like this. That kind of setting, where you have these emergency backup systems that aren’t tested very often, can lead to some bad outcomes. This is something we can overcome if we plan for it, but assuming that everything will be fine in an emergency situation is probably not the move here.
Daniel Raimi: You mentioned modeling earlier. Can you talk about how large-scale energy-system models that we use to evaluate the future energy system might look under different policy mixes? To what extent do they account for these mid-transition challenges that you’re talking about? Why does that matter for their outcomes?
Emily Grubert: In my experience, they don’t account for this stuff very well, and that’s understandable. These are very complex models. A lot of the time, the question that they’re asking is, “Is something feasible?” or, “If we implement this policy, what do we think would happen in a best-case scenario?”
Where we are now—where we do have a direction we’re going, and we’re starting to take decarbonization more seriously in a lot of the world and, in particular, in the United States—we need to get more specific on some of the infrastructure things. Some of the work that I’ve done with students over the last couple of years has pointed this out.
But there’s not a lot of infrastructure awareness in many of the cost-optimization models. As long as a plant is perceived to be meeting its costs, there’s not a lot of acknowledgement that, maybe, there’s not a fuel supply anymore, because that’s difficult to model when you are assuming static conditions, in terms of how easy it is to access fuel and stuff like that.
Similarly, you may not see a lot of the realities of maintenance associated with older facilities going forward. For example, the big US energy-systems model oftentimes will assume that power plants stay active for much longer than a typical life span would say is reasonable. A model could say that a coal plant might be around for 90 years. That’s really unlikely, unless you assume a lot of investment and attention to keeping something like that online.
In general, there is a lack of specific attention to what is, practically speaking, likely to happen, in terms of the infrastructure support. This is a big failure so far. Again, we’re at the beginning of where people are starting to believe that decarbonization could happen. As we make our models more sophisticated, it will be important to pay close attention to where we’re assuming ridiculous or extreme outcomes on some of the infrastructure.
Daniel Raimi: Would it be safe to assume that the outcome of including some of these mid-transition challenges, such as additional maintenance costs or securing physical energy supplies, likely would be higher-cost outcomes than the current fleet of optimization models might suggest?
Emily Grubert: There are a couple of different ways this could go. There is, hopefully, some interesting work starting to come out on these topics. But if you assume that the basic structure of what’s going on is the same as the models suggest, then yes, you’d probably expect the incorporation of these mid-transition issues to raise costs. What I mean by assuming that the overall structure is similar is that, if you do assume that you always need a natural gas backup for deep-decarbonized power, then that’s probably more expensive than we think it is.
On the other hand, because we do tend to look at these as optimization models, there are a lot of opportunities for the outcome to qualitatively change. For anybody who’s an Amory Lovins fan, this concept of tunneling through the cost barrier comes up a lot when we think about deep building efficiency. You are able to spot things that you didn’t necessarily think were worthwhile and eliminate entire systems in a way that potentially makes things cheaper.
The classical building example is, if you make your building envelope tight enough, you might be able to get away with not having a furnace. That’s a massive cost saving. When we look at the overall system, there are potentially some opportunities like that. If we realize that keeping the natural gas backup supply with all of the pipelines, extractive activities, and expensive infrastructure systems, are super expensive, we might say, “Maybe we don’t want to do that.”
Let’s look instead at some alternatives and make sure that all buildings are super efficient and can handle non-coincident loads for heating and cooling, for example, or let’s look at a system where we assume a lot more distributed energy resources, where you potentially see opportunities that are qualitatively different from what the models are showing. It could be way cheaper, but different from what we’re looking at; or could be quite similar to what a lot of the models say, but more expensive. That’s where the two outcomes might be.
Daniel Raimi: That’s another conversation. One time, you and I were talking, and you said something about radical efficiency, which would be a really fun conversation. But we’re going to put that on hold for now.
Going back to the potential challenges that could arise if we continue going in the direction that we are and that some of these models might suggest, as we incorporate these challenges of the mid-transition, do you think there are implications for public opinion about energy policy? If people experience the energy system behaving in ways that they’re not accustomed to, as a result of these mid-transition issues, how do you think that could affect the way people think about the energy transition?
Emily Grubert: That probably is a significant problem. I’m big on being extraordinarily honest with people about the challenges that we’re facing and thinking clearly about how to articulate how we’re going to make sure that everybody has the basic services and access that they need to live dignified and good lives.
We are likely to see the system be choppier, more difficult, and maybe more expensive and less reliable during the mid-transition than it is either at the starting point or the after-point. That’s partially because of these maladaptations in the middle.
It’s partially because of climate change. Because we’re looking at climate change happening at the same time as this massive technological transition, we’re very likely to see people assuming that the visible infrastructure transition that they’re watching around them is the cause of problems that are arising.
In some cases, that might be fair. These are brand new systems that are still fairly immature. We’re still learning how to do this. But we’re also learning how to do this at a time when climate change is making everything harder. Those challenges may result in blackouts, higher costs, spiky costs, or big fuel scares that we would not have expected to see if we were doing this a bit better. Those things may well happen, and they may be the result of either climate change or stumbles, as we learn how to operate these systems.
If the thing that people see changing is the big infrastructure, there’s a very high likelihood that folks will assume that it’s the infrastructure and that things are never going to get better: “Why are we doing this? Let’s go back to what we’ve always done; that seemed to work better.”
Set aside the point that a lot of the systems we have now that we perceive as reliable probably won’t be as reliable and won’t be as available going forward because of climate change. It’s a real risk that people blame any challenges on the transition itself. It’s hard to keep trust in those systems for 20 or 30 years to get to the other side, where these systems are mature, and we don’t have to cater to maladaptations associated with managing both systems at once.
This is a massive risk. Being clear with people about how we’re going to anticipate problems and react under each scenario to make sure that people have what they need is going to be incredibly important to making the transition work. Whether we can actually do that is a huge outstanding question, but pretending that this is going to be smooth and automatically better than what we’ve had before is a grave political error.
Daniel Raimi: When you talk to some clean energy advocates, you do sometimes get the feeling like we’re about to head over the rainbow or something like that. I think pointing out some of the challenges that could arise in an energy transition is sometimes met with hostility, because there are real bad-faith actors that are trying to use any example of a wind farm or a solar farm having a problem as evidence that we can never get to that place over the rainbow. Communication seems like such a big deal.
Emily Grubert: What’s tricky about it is that everything has negative impacts. Trying to pretend that’s not true can be damaging, in terms of how people trust you. At the same time, the kinds of negative impacts that we expect from a lot of the clean energy technologies we’re talking about probably are less bad than a lot of the negative impacts of the fossil system that we’re leaving behind.
The transition is not a foregone conclusion. It’s important to take people seriously and be clear about what we might see get a bit worse in the short term in order to achieve longer-term things that we think are going to be worth it in the long term: lower water use, lower air pollution, quiet, fewer lights, or whatever it is that we’re talking about. There are a lot of opportunities to explain, “We’re anticipating this. This is how we’re going to mitigate it during the period where that’s true.” Then, afterwards, we can say, “This is where we’re going and why.”
Daniel Raimi: I’m reminded of the difficulty of transitions every time I try to get my four-year-old to do something. When he’s doing something, he’s happy. When he’s doing that next thing, he’s happy. But, in between the first thing and the second thing, you get lots of challenges.
Emily Grubert: At least with him it’s not 30 years every time.
Daniel Raimi: It feels like it, though.
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Thanks, Daniel. Back to you.
Daniel Raimi: Let’s talk now about the policy implications. You’ve talked about communicating around these issues, but there surely are policy implications, too. One of the implications is that, as the fleet of fossil infrastructure across a suite of technologies becomes more risky (because some of them could become stranded assets), the government will need to take on more of a direct financial responsibility to ensure that the energy system is reliable and is safe. Otherwise, there might not be enough private-sector incentive to continue investing in what could be stranded assets.
Can you talk about that a little bit? Am I right in my characterization of it? How big of a deal do you think that could be?
Emily Grubert: I’m worried about the general socialization of risk and privatization of benefits in a broad sense. In terms of ensuring that the systems are safely operated until their last day, I do think there’s some coordination responsibility there.
With the conversations about nationalization and how exactly those workforces are brought through the transition, what pensions look like, and that kind of thing, there is a significant opportunity to think about what the coordinating role of the federal government might be.
I don’t mean this in the sense that the government should assume it should pay for all of the things that probably should have probably been happening from the industry’s perspective the whole time, in this particular arena and not others. But this point about retiring high-hazard industries—and we do need them to be available until they’re not needed anymore—potentially leads to some deep conclusions about who’s responsible for making sure that happens and that the retirements do actually happen.
One of the things that I worry about a lot is this notion that a rational actor looking at some of these industries might say, “Of course I’m not going to start my career in this area.” A lot of the time, we see people talking about how we’re training fewer petroleum engineers, fewer coal miners, and we see that as a good thing. Overall, that probably is true; as these industries become less of a part of what people perceive to be a good future, seeing a lot less attention to massive training programs probably is a good thing.
But these transitions are likely to take several decades. How do you get people that are committed to the transition, but also are trained in the types of activities that keep the systems running? The workforce that we have now is not going to be sufficient to get us to the end of that.
So, we probably do need some new people. It’ll be important to ensure that we have a sense of how the folks that are getting recruited into these industries have a transition pathway that is somewhat flexible. That way, we know that we could keep the systems running and have people transition to other jobs or, maybe, an early retirement that’s covered in some way that makes the career worth entering. These are really important conversations to have.
I’m personally excited about thinking carefully about what remediation transitions might look like. Places and facilities where you potentially have location-matched and skills-matched jobs could be enough of an off-ramp for the existing workforces that we have in these areas. Megan Milliken Biven has talked a lot about an “abandoned-well administration” that thinks about transitioning oil-and-gas workers to handling the abandoned wells that we have in the United States. This is a way that the government could create both a program for people to actually maintain jobs, but also deal with a significant remediation issue that we have. I get excited about those types of things.
A tricky point is that we need to make sure that these industries are safely stewarded until the very last day without that necessarily leading to the conclusion that we need to expand them. The other example where this comes up a lot is how much we continue to invest in gas pipelines. If those are systems that we expect to go away over the next couple of decades, and we’re talking about billion-dollar investments to make sure that the pipes are up to date, it becomes challenging to differentiate between expansion and safety. That’s going to continue to be a hard conversation, too.
Daniel Raimi: When we think about natural gas pipelines, we have over 2 million miles, right? It’s either 2 or 3 million miles. Do you know off the top of your head?
Emily Grubert: It’s a few hundred thousand on the transmission side; the rest of it is distribution. I can’t remember exactly what the number is, but I think you’re right.
Daniel Raimi: One last question, Emily, before we go to our Top of the Stack. We’ve gone through, as a world, a painful period of energy prices and energy disruptions over the last six months or so with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some people have attributed some of those challenges to the transition to wind and solar as an explanation for high electricity costs or looked to government policy as a driver of high energy costs. To what extent do you think today’s energy challenges are related to the mid-transition issues that we’ve talked about? To what extent do you think it’s something else, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Emily Grubert: What’s interesting is that those are related questions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to some outcomes that are exacerbated by mid-transition issues that maybe wouldn’t have been as big of an issue if we had thought about this differently a couple decades ago.
What gets challenging about the mid-transition is that a lot of things become more structurally likely to happen. These things may have more immediate precipitating factors. The notion that you might see massive price spikes and uneven access to fossil fuels is predictable under mid-transition conditions.
In this particular case, it happens to have been precipitated by a war, but there are other ways that you could expect that to happen. It’s not unreasonable to say that we should plan on this type of thing happening more frequently. Why exactly and the immediate reason might vary; of course, there are more or less horrible ways that can lead to those types of outcomes happening.
The main point is that, during this transition under climate change and all of these things, we probably should anticipate what we’re going to do if we see limited access to resources, big price spikes, and that type of thing. Why it happens is a completely different set of questions. But the fact that it does happen—and that it will continue to happen, probably—is cause to really think about how we respond.
Daniel Raimi: That’s super smart, unsurprisingly. Is there anything else, Emily, that I should have asked you about that I haven’t?
Emily Grubert: The only thing is a bit of a drum that I beat. The main conclusion that I draw is that the mid-transition is likely to be very challenging, and we’re likely to see some bad outcomes associated with people’s personal lives, in terms of price spikes, lack of access to heat, and that type of thing. In general, this should drive us toward being biased toward service provision and ensuring that people have what they need to thrive. Whether we need to think about more creative ways or more structural ways to do that is an important conversation that we need to be having.
This is part of the reason why I tend to come down on the side of things like healthcare, housing, and access. Those types of things are climate policy. We know this is going to get hard over the next few decades. We know it’s likely to be hard in ways that are difficult to predict. If we start from a place of asking about how we provide justice and services that people need, and we think about that as the core thing we’re trying to do, then a lot of the other stuff becomes clearer, in terms of what we need to be doing to make sure that those fundamental services are being provided.
In the context of something like a fuel shortage, systems to get people to a heating or cooling center or something like that are things we can do regardless of the underlying reason for problems. They’re probably things we’re going to need to get better at over time, like making sure that people are housed and have safe temperatures inside their houses. Those are things we can do without necessarily being focused on fuel-supply issues. Ensuring that we have all of that clear and that we start from the presumption that we need to figure those types of things out is going to be incredibly important here.
Daniel Raimi: That’s a great note to end on, so let’s ask you the last question that we ask all of our guests. Recommend something that you think is great—it can be related to the environment, if only tangentially—that’s on the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack.What would you like to recommend?
Emily Grubert: I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave, which is a fascinating read for me, coming from the perspective of 2022. It’s about the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. The book originally came out in 2002, and it goes into a lot of the social and structural factors that led to that heat wave being more or less deadly in different parts of the city.
The reason that I think it’s so interesting to read now is that it was written before climate was a huge point of focus. He does allude to it in a few places, and it was clearly something people knew about, but it wasn’t the driving focus of why this is going on. It’s a super smart read, and I think it’s extremely relevant to our infrastructure challenges going forward.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds fascinating. Because I didn’t mention it during the show, I also want to call out the title of your paper with Sara, which is “Designing the Mid-Transition: A Review of Medium-Term Challenges for Coordinated Decarbonization in the United States.” And we’ll make sure to have a link to both the book and the article in the show notes.
One more time, Emily Grubert from the University of Notre Dame, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. This has been a fascinating conversation about something that we’re going to be talking about for years, if not decades, to come.
Emily Grubert: Thank you so much for having me. Always a pleasure.
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