Is the moonshot an apt analogy for the urgency and scope of this climate-induced energy transition?

by Allen Best

Big Pivots

In becoming president in 1961, John Kennedy announced an ambition to put a man on a moon. In July 1969, it happened.

That moonshot has since become a metaphor for giant efforts. But that 20th century effort pales in comparison to the challenge now before the United States—and really, all of humanity—by the threat of climate change.

Climate scientists say we must substantially decarbonize our economies by 2030. Colorado has set a goal of 50% by 2030. President Biden has embraced a similar goal of 50% to 52%. But also consider that we’re just months from having a president who called climate change a hoax.

In the concluding session of the 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium held on May 4-5, Martin Keller, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents a broad swath of the northern Front Range, were mostly optimistic.

“Today, it is, in some respects, the difference between night and the day, the work the federal government is doing on the policy front,” said Neguse.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse

Neguse in 2019 conducted a field hearing in Boulder of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The report the bi-partisan committee produced covered much ground and, said Neguse, provided the brush strokes now found in the Biden administration’s plan for addressing climate change.

Even by December, though, there was a shift in Washington, he said, evident in a budget bill that affects clean energy. Then Biden became president, rejoining the Paris Climate Change Agreement, most important for its symbolic value.

“It sent a strong signal to the rest of the world that we are back and ready to reclaim our position of leadership in climate change,” said Neguse.

Neguse said today he believes that climate change denialism has disappeared in all except the most far-right-wing echo chambers. The primary counter argument has become that U.S. climate action won’t matter if other nations – principally China and Indian – do not take similar action.

Despite great fears in 2017, soon after President Donald Trump took office, NREL’s budget actually grew during the Trump presidency. Just the same, Keller conceded that the national sense of urgency is the “complete opposite” of  what it was a few years ago.

Keller, concurring with what the keynote speaker, Gina McCarthy, the climate advisor to Biden, said the day before, said much can be done with existing technology to meet short-term goals. He described a more troubling challenge in meeting mid- and long-term goals with the mixture of uncertainty and urgency.

Thirty years ago, solar energy was seen as crazy, not a viable way to meet demands for electricity. Now, it is becoming among the cheapest ways, its share of electrical generation rapidly expanding.

“We do not have 30 years” for the next level of technologies to be deployed and become cost competitive, he said. This net increment must occur in 10 years. Collaboration with industry will be absolutely critical.

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In some sectors, we are moving rapidly. In Colorado, utilities representing 99% of electrical generation say they can achieve 80% carbon reductions by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Platte River Power authority believes it can hit 90%. Holy Cross Energy aims for 100%.

How about other states? Neguse echoed what McCarthy had said the day prior, namely that while he once supported carbon pricing, he now leans strongly toward a national clean energy standard, similar to the renewable portfolio standards adopted by Colorado and other states, but with a much more ambitious goal of 80% by 2030.

“I am more optimistic about us getting something done in this regard than I was in the past,” he said.

Martin Keller

Keller directed attention to the 100% renewable energy study that NREL did on behalf of Los Angeles. That study required detailed modeling, focusing on the transmission lines into LA, the energy distribution to disadvantaged communities (60%), even the best fuel for combustion turbines (biofuels).

The study showed scientists gaps in technologies that need to be addressed for LA to achieve its goal. That study’s conclusions will be different from one done for another city or region, said Keller.

Might the pandemic actually provide value in creating a template for unified action to address climate change? Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University, seen in the photo at top, ventured that thought. Neguse and Keller thought it an interesting, useful question.

“If we decide to fly to the moon, anything can happen,” said Keller, wearing American patriotism on his sleeve despite his German birth.

See also: Biden climate advisor frames climate crisis as an exciting opportunity

But is the moonshot analogy truly apt now?

“Beyond the technical complexity of the successful moonshot effort, another big difference is that the climate response will require full participation throughout society in addition to all countries,” said Dave Munk, a director of Holy Cross Energy. “Hence the importance of equity. The previous moonshot effort was hands-off for the general public and we just waited to celebrate the incredible achievements of NASA and our government.”

Former Gov. Bill Ritter, now director of the Center for the New Energy Economy and a moderator of the panel, agreed wholeheartedly. Evaluating changes through the lens of equity and environmental justice does provide a different way to look at it.

Keller concurred. “We cannot afford to leave any community behind,” he said.

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Allen Best