Today’s guest is Jessica Lovering, Director of Energy at The Breakthrough Institute. Jessica is the director of Breakthough’s Energy program and has worked on nuclear energy policy since 2012. Jessica’s research has focused on how innovation in nuclear energy can bring down costs and accelerate deployment to help mitigate climate change, as laid out in the reports How to Make Nuclear Cheap and How to Make Nuclear Innovative. We cover a ton of ground on the important topic of nuclear energy, so if this is an interest area for you, this episode is for you. Enjoy the show!
Today’s guest is Jessica Lovering, Director of Energy at The Breakthrough Institute.
Jessica is the director of Breakthough’s Energy program and has worked on nuclear energy policy since 2012. Jessica’s research has focused on how innovation in nuclear energy can bring down costs and accelerate deployment to help mitigate climate change, as laid out in the reports How to Make Nuclear Cheap and How to Make Nuclear Innovative.
Jessica was the lead author on the peer-reviewed paper, Historical construction costs of global nuclear power reactors, which was the top-rated paper in Energy Policy for over a year. She co-authored the report Atoms for Africa: Is There a Future for Civil Nuclear Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa?, with several Breakthrough Generation Fellows. She worked with experts from R Street Institute and ClearPath to publish a set of policy recommendation around micronuclear in Planting the Seeds of a Distributed Nuclear Revolution. And she has published more broadly on energy innovation and clean energy standards.
Jessica has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Vox, Forbes, Wired, and The Australian. You can hear her interviewed on The Interchange podcast and on Titans of Nuclear. Jessica is a frequent public speaker and has given talks across the US as well as in Japan, Australia, China, France, and Argentina. She is featured along with Ted Nordhaus in the documentary The New Fire.
Jessica holds a B.A. in Astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an M.S. in Astrophysics and Planetary Science and an M.S. in Environmental Policy, both from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also worked for two years on NASA's New Horizons mission, which flew by Pluto in July 2015.
Jessica grew up mostly in northern California, but has also lived in Texas, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. In her spare time she enjoys doing ballet, reading post-apocalyptic fiction, and pursuing a PhD. She is married to Linus Blomqvist.
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You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
(show addendum: Jessica moved on from the Breakthrough Institute in September 2019)
Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to my climate journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone. Jason here. Today's guest is Jessica [inaudible 00:00:28] from the Breakthrough Institute. The Breakthrough Institute is a global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges in areas like energy, food and agriculture and conservation. As director of energy, Jessica leads the energy program and spends much of her time focusing on nuclear specifically.
Jason Jacobs: In this episode we cover a number of topics, including Jessica's history and what led her down the path to focusing on climate change. We also talk about what led her to working on nuclear specifically, what she feels are some of the biggest things that are holding nuclear back domestically, what led her to that conclusion and what we can do about it. We also talked about some examples of other countries that are further along in this regard and what we might be able to learn from those countries. We talked about the role of advanced nuclear, the role of the federal government versus states, the pros and cons of public utilities and deregulation, the eco-modernness movement and different flavors such as hard eco-modernness or pragmatists.
Jason Jacobs: We also talked about some of the different generations of people that are working on environmental problems. Finally, we talked about the most impactful things that could happen to achieve rapid de-carbonization and what you and I can do to help. I thought this was a great episode. We covered a lot of ground and you know, the Breakthrough Institute, they have a reputation that's kind of edgy, maybe ruffling some feathers. But I found Jessica to be super nice, super thoughtful and really forthcoming with information.
Jason Jacobs: Jessica [Lovering 00:02:02], welcome to the show.
Jessica L.: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. Maybe for the benefit of our listeners and for me, what is the Breakthrough Institute? What do you guys do?
Jessica L.: Breakthrough is an environmental think tank. We're in Oakland, California. It keeps us a little out of the day to day DC fray of legislation and politics, but what we tend to focus on is original research and analysis looking at ways that technology can alleviate environmental problems, whether it's in climate, traditional evolution and now we're moving more into food and farming. On the energy side what that looks like is, our motto has really been make clean energy cheap. Rather than look for ways to pass carbon tax or make fossil fuels more expensive, look for policies that assimilate innovation and help bring the cost down of clean energy technologies so that it's the obvious choice for utilities and for consumers.
Jessica L.: I've specifically focused on nuclear power since I started at Breakthrough in 2012.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. I heard on my friend Brett's broadcast, titans of nuclear, your episode that you started down an astrophysics path before switching gears into climate, energy, nuclear.
Jessica L.: Yeah. I was really passionate about space, and particularly planets but in my day to day life was really concerned about the environment and I spent a summer living in Alaska and just got more and more concerned about climate change, seeing the effects sort of day to day and very real up there. I wanted to get more involved. Astrophysics felt a little too distant and not as important in the short term here on Planet Earth, so I switched into environmental policy when I was in grad school and ended up getting a degree in energy policy and that's sort of how I was led to the Breakthrough Institute.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. The areas that you mentioned, some of the recent stuff in agriculture and of course the energy stuff that Breakthrough's done for a long time, how do you guys prioritize which areas to focus on? Then within those, how do you prioritize what you actually do to make an impact in those areas?
Jessica L.: Yeah. Breakthrough is quite small for an organization and for the full time staff that we have. We're trying to find ways where we can make the most impact. Typically how we prioritize is we look at where are the issues or the spaces that aren't getting enough attention and could actually have a big impact if we started rallying support around these things. That's in particular how I got started is around 2011, around the time of the [inaudible 00:04:48] accident. We realized that there wasn't really enough conversation around nuclear power, particularly for groups and advocates that were saying we have to do everything possible to get to zero carbon.
Jessica L.: But everyone was just sort of ignoring our larger source which is your carbon electricity in the US. We then started exploring well what are the challenges? Why isn't there more nuclear? What's stopping it? A similar thing when we started getting into the non-power sector, looking at well, the power sector's only 25% of emissions. What about all these other areas? What about agriculture? What about forestry? What about industry? How are we actually going to move the needle in those areas?
Jessica L.: That's how we got into it, but definitely we want to find a unique niche and what we can do research on or analysis on and find a unique breakthrough angle.
Jason Jacobs: In terms of that research and analysis, so you find an area that you feel like is underserved and can have a big impact. Does the actual work you do from a research and analysis standpoint tend to be pretty systematic and boilerplate in terms of it's scope, in terms of the process? Or does it vary a lot in terms of the specific result that you're trying to achieve?
Jessica L.: I would say it varies a lot, and it's pretty fluid. For a lot of these projects when we start out, we're just sort of exploring. We want to figure out what's going on with advanced nuclear, or where could costs come down, or ... we started a project a few years ago that we're just working on submitting to a journal now on land use intensity of energy. A lot of the times our projects get started by, well a lot of people are saying this, but is that really true.
Jessica L.: For example with the land use paper, we hear a lot that nuclear power is really dense and that renewables take up a lot of space out in the landscape. So we really wanted to do a better job understanding how different are they? Are there good places and bad places? Are there best practices so that renewables take up less space? What's really the impact when we're thinking about fully decarbonizing the global energy system? What does that look like in terms of land? Which is something that no one was really talking about, particularly in these big energy scenarios and systems modeling of how much land that would really use.
Jessica L.: That's kind of how we got started. Then once we know what the analysis is, it's a little bit more, we started a structure and formula for how we're going to run the numbers and collect data and things like that, which looks more like traditional kind of academia or a research institute.
Jason Jacobs: From a prioritization standpoint, I guess that prioritization could occur at the individual researcher's standpoint, could occur at kind of the central leadership standpoint, or it could take a lot of input from funders. So how does it work at Breakthrough?
Jessica L.: Yeah. Each of our research programs have a director, so our director of energy program. I set the priorities and what we want to work on within energy. It's pretty separate between the different programs, but we do talk with a lot of people about what our priorities should be maybe. We follow what the discourse is on social media, on the big newspaper and magazine sites talking about energy. So we're kind of following what's being talked about and then we also have this great network of senior fellows, which are mostly academics that are affiliate with Breakthrough.
Jessica L.: We reach out to them when we have ideas. Is this worth pursuing? What's our perspective? We're really lucky that our funders are very knowledgeable and engaged with our work in a way that we can get feedback from them on potential ideas that's really valuable. They're also very supportive of our ideas that we bring to them of what we want to pursue. It's a good ecosystem for thinking more creatively around how to solve problems in a way that I think other organizations are a little more constrained in what they're able to pursue.
Jason Jacobs: Uh-huh (affirmative. If you can't say, just say you can't say, but is it public in terms of either who the funders are or just the demographic makeup; if they're individuals or foundations or ...
Jessica L.: Our funding is all public and we have a list on our website. If people are very interested ...
Jason Jacobs: Now I'm embarrassed I don't know that.
Jessica L.: The Breakthrough.org, they list all our funders and it's mostly, it's all [inaudible 00:09:11] profit. We don't accept any funding from industry. It's mostly family foundations, so people who care about the environment, care about human development, and have some money to share.
Jason Jacobs: Great. What was it about nuclear ... so when you were ... I heard on Brett's podcast that you started on the astrophysics path and you spent some time in Alaska. You had this awakening about the environment and precious resources and started turning more in this direction. As you started down that path, what is it that led you to nuclear?
Jessica L.: I will say at this time in my life, I had never really been anti-nuclear. I just hadn't thought about it much, I think like a lot of people from my generation. We didn't focus on energy. Where I was living, I was in Colorado. I was growing my own food. I was drinking raw milk. I was really into renewables you see them everywhere. Lot of people have solar on their roof. When I started doing this energy policy degree, I was just thinking about living solar and how to deploy more and that just sort of fit with my general world view of kind of small scale, personal solutions.
Jessica L.: It was actually a class taught by Roger [inaudible 00:10:24] Jr. Who was a senior fellow at Breakthrough where we just did these very simple de carbonization models in Excel of how we each got a country and we tried to figure out how to get them to zero carbon. Just seeing how difficult it was, even to just decarbonize the power sector, let alone the entire energy sector for a single country. And looking at it in terms of millions of [inaudible 00:10:53] or square miles of solar panels and then it's just like six nuclear plants. Or something like that.
Jessica L.: It was kind of crazy, even the number for a lot of these countries, even the number of nuclear plants is pretty large, but it seems much more doable if you include nuclear and it definitely seems like you shouldn't take it off the table. Obviously we're not going to go 100% nuclear, but including it in the mix when, build as much wind as you can, go as much solar as you can and then go as much nuclear as you can. We might get there.
Jessica L.: That was really a revelation for me was just running the numbers for these different countries and then learning a little bit more about how energy models are done through FECC and through these big modeling groups, how many ... how much fudging goes on and magic tricks. They get you someplace that looks doable when if you were being more realistic, it's a lot harder than they make it look to decarbonize. That's how I got interested in nuclear and then I spent the rest of my time in grad school trying to figure out, learning about nuclear and trying to figure out what the major obstacles were and why it was really ignored in a lot of the climate and environmental communities.
Jason Jacobs: I've been spending some time in nuclear, not even a smidge as deep as you, but I've been drawn to it for similar reasons where I'm hearing again and again and again that our path is so overwhelmingly hard, way harder than a lot of people understand and that even with nuclear, it's still super hard but at least it's meaningfully easier. Then there's all these things that I'm finding that I need to get my brain around about safety and waste and security, proliferation risk, cost, Fukushima and [inaudible 00:12:43] and [inaudible 00:12:43].
Jason Jacobs: Then there's consumer perception of not in my back yard stuff and then does consumer perception even matter? It's like there's all this stuff, and I heard you say on Brett's podcast, not to keep coming back to that, but it's fresh. I just listened to it yesterday but that ultimately there's all these different things you hear but that the real thing is cost. But for those of us that hear that conclusion but didn't go through the same journey as you to get there, can you explain? Given that there's all that vast landscape of stuff that I just mentioned, what led you to that conclusion that it's all about cost?
Jessica L.: I would say cost is the biggest obstacle. It's not all about cost. There are other big reasons that people don't like nuclear. From my understanding of the history and [inaudible 00:13:24] recent time of nuclear, what's actually stopped nuclear from getting built has been cost. Now that may be different in the future when we move towards more of a decentralized power system, where there is much more community involvement in projects, but why it comes down to cost. Looking at who's done big nuclear build-ups in the past, they weren't at all motivated around climate change.
Jessica L.: There are some certain places where countries or locales were concerned about local air pollution, so particulates from coal plants, but generally, the motivation for most countries that did big nuclear scale ups was just cheap, reliable electricity, particularly once you get the plant built, the operating costs are so small. They're the second lowest [inaudible 00:14:14] after hydro for existing nuclear power plants. For countries that were rapidly industrializing after World War II, having that huge source of cheap reliable electricity was just so important in powering economic growth, community development, urbanization.
Jessica L.: From our perspective, it's like well, they were building it because it was cheap and now we're saying we can't build it because it's too expensive. What's going on there? There's a complicated story there of public utilities and national monopolies and deregulation in the power sector, but the jist is that now, especially in the US where most of our states have deregulated power markets, it's just really challenging to build anything, particularly something that has a high up front cost, even if the cost for electricity is going to be quite low over the long term. Getting the financing and the support for such a big project up front is really challenging.
Jessica L.: So thinking about, we do have two new nuclear reactors under construction in the US today at their global site in Georgia. That is a public utility that's doing that project. That's how they're able to do it. So there's been news reports about cost overruns there. They're not as big as some of the cost overruns we had in the 70's and 80's in the US, but they've had cost overruns. Even with those high costs of the project, the actual cost of electricity in the long run is going to be really affordable for them. That's why they're doing it.
Jessica L.: We don't have utilities like that with that long term vision in a lot of the US, particularly in a lot of Europe. We could make a case that well, we should just go back to public utilities. We should re regulate, which was on the ballot in California 10 years or so ago. I like public utilities. It would be great if we could do that, but I don't think it's going to happen. The question is not France built all this nuclear in the 70's, let's just do what France did. Well they had state owned utilities, state owned nuclear developer. We are not going to be able to replicate that.
Jessica L.: As great as it was for the climate and for the energy system. What I've been looking at is how can you actually design nuclear and commercialize nuclear that matches what the power market looks like today, which is much more decentralized, deregulated and focused much more on variable costs and community scale power generation. Traditionally, nuclear is not a good fit for that market at all, but we're seeing with a lot of these startups and advanced nuclear designs thinking more about how their product meets market needs rather than we have this amazing nuclear technology. It's perfect. It's so safe. Buy it.
Jessica L.: They're actually thinking more like traditional tech developers and saying what's the market look like? How do I make a product that fits that market need? That's what's really different about the developers working on nuclear today.
Jason Jacobs: I think I'm hearing from you is that cost has historically been a problem and it's complicated because there's incentives and these big projects that are done on a one-off basis and the fact that we don't have public owned utilities, et cetera. But that you're working on some ways to address that cost with more modular, more distributed, more community involvement, et cetera, advance reactors. I guess one question I have is when you are entering the space, did you have this consumer hysteria and renewables hysteria about waste and safety and security? Did that come at you like what are you doing? You can't do that for these reasons. And how did you get comfortable there before you even got to the cost challenge?
Jessica L.: You know, I can't really remember a time when I was afraid of waste or radiation in particular. I definitely was cautious about more of the military industrial complex. More concerned about radiation accidents and contamination from our nuclear weapons industry. But I hadn't really thought too much about nuclear waste and sort of dangers from the commercial side. I think a big part of that is probably my physics background. I know that there's radiation coming at us from all directions 24/7 so I felt a little more comfortable if someone says, "Well, there's radiation." I'm like, "What kind? How strong? What blocks it?"
Jessica L.: I think that, for me personally, that helped, but I definitely understand and try to sympathize with people's fears around radiation because it's invisible. The government was letting us be dusted with it for a long time during the atomic weapons testing. That's scary. In terms of waste and safety, I think for me the bigger issue, and I think this is true for a lot of people in my generation is, we focused a lot on the risk of catastrophic climate change, destruction of ecosystems, [inaudible 00:19:34] oceans that these kind of really rare risks from a nuclear accident don't seem as severe when we're sort of pumping a million tons of whole pollution into the atmosphere every day.
Jessica L.: These tiny chances of nuclear accidents don't seem as important when it could be a solution to climate change. That's kind of how I viewed things. I definitely have gotten, I think better at talking with people about their fears and concerns around nuclear waste and nuclear safety, but it's definitely something you don't want to ignore or dismiss because people's fears are really important and it's really critical to understand them when you're trying to make policy to expand deployment of a new technology.
Jason Jacobs: I think that talks about the safety concern. You also hear about waste and where are we going to put it and [inaudible 00:20:30] mountain and what a disaster. We've just sent in tasks and what are we doing to do? By the way, I'm still gathering information, but I'm finding more and more that I'm in the camp I think right now that we need nuclear and that the benefits outweigh the risks given the existential threat that we find ourselves in. But that before I can get to that position confidently and really put some weight behind it, I need to pressure test it. That's kind of how I'm viewing conversations like this is, all the things that all the skeptics tell me and all the things that I'd be crazy because of these reasons, let me bring those up so that I can do my homework and have more conviction around my viewpoints.
Jessica L.: I [inaudible 00:21:15]. Something for me understanding more of the legacy of the military side of nuclear has been important where it can be easy, particularly for nuclear power. It gets to be like, "oh, they're totally separate." Don't even mention nuclear weapons or [inaudible 00:21:33] these military sites. That was weapons, forget about it because for a lot of people, it's hard to disentangle [inaudible 00:21:38] nuclear and [inaudible 00:21:39] a lot of things.
Jessica L.: Being willing to grapple with that when you talk to people can really help move the conversation forward.
Jason Jacobs: I guess another thing I've been wrestling with is that there's kind of the rational arguments of, "Well look at the carbon and look at the risks." So the risk of this versus the risk of that. That, I would call that just like a rational conversation based on trade offs and things like that. But there's another perspective which is, will we ever have the political will for nuclear to be deployed at scale? At least in this country. And whether it's rational or not, if the public and the legislators et cetera have certain viewpoints, then at some point we need to swim with the tide versus trying to go upstream all the time. How do you think about those trade offs?
Jessica L.: I think that's one space where nuclear does have an advantage in that, in the US at least, it has pretty bipartisan support. We've seen a number of those go through in recent years with really large shares of votes from both parties. Think of the Mika [inaudible 00:22:44] Bills. I think that's given us some optimism. They are small steps, but they're steps in the right direction and they have a lot of big name senators on them. I've seen that as a really good sign, but obviously we need a lot more.
Jessica L.: In terms of will we have the political will? You don't need that much from a President. A lot of this is happening now at the private level. It would be very helpful to have strong leadership around climate in general and supporting innovative new ideas. We've seen a lot of that in terms of increasing support for DOE and for the nuclear energy L&D, but you don't need a massive World War II globalization effort. You need some support policies at the state level, sort of moving towards clean energy mandates instead of [inaudible 00:23:41] portfolio standards, which a lot of states have.
Jessica L.: States can make their own choices and their own policies and I think that's where we're seeing more of the action. There is definitely some work that needs to be done to streamline the licensing process and it would be great to have some more financial support, kind of like the [inaudible 00:23:59] tax credit that renewables benefit from. I think that's doable. I don't think you need a huge effort. It's not a huge lift from a new administration. Yeah, I don't see it so much as a trade off. I think we've taken some steps in the right direction and we could use a lot more policy, but we're sort of building up momentum towards that.
Jason Jacobs: How much work, if any, is Breakthrough doing? To me it seems like two different skill sets, and correct me if I'm wrong. There is kind of the math and which things should be deployed at scale, et cetera to make the math work and then there's a separate one which is like how do we get the right policies in place and how do we influence people on both sides of the aisle, et cetera. Are you guys involved in any of that stuff or is it strictly on the ...
Jessica L.: Yeah. We definitely are focused on policy and we look at trying to find policies that can have broad support rather than policies that sort of alienate one group or the other. With nuclear, one of the areas that we found is pretty bipartisan support, is investing in innovation and moving beyond just basic R&D and getting support for demonstrations and prototypes and actual deployment. That's something whee we see that, we've looked at lots of different policies that could help clean energy and nuclear specifically and that seems like a place where there is less fighting and more feasible policy.
Jessica L.: The other one which I just mentioned was clean energy standards. We have a report that we put out just last year on trying to get states to shift or add on to their existing renewable portfolio standards which 31 states have, change them to clean energy standards and kind of raise the bar on how much clean energy they deploy. We've actually seen a few states are considering this. Some have already put it into place. That's something that we look for these opportunities in terms of policies that can actually make progress and we're seeing some success there at the state level.
Jason Jacobs: Is it you guys that are actually then spending time with the legislators or do you have partner advocacy firms that you work with closely?
Jessica L.: No. We sometimes will talk with people in these states, but it's more, we're kind of setting up the framework for policies of what they should look like and then working with people that have more experience in those states in terms of actually moving things forward.
Jason Jacobs: Uh-huh (affirmative), but it sounds like you feel ... saying it as a statement, but it's really a question is that you feel optimistic about nuclear path and that in the near term it's going to be more at the state level than at the federal, but that there's some good momentum on the policy front and on the technology front that should unlock a new wave of deployment?
Jessica L.: Yeah. I think there is still a lot of important support coming from the federal level through the national labs, through DOE. There's an interesting. Request for information that DOD put out around having micro reactors powering DOD installations. There's little things like that that are really important from the federal level, but in terms of incentives and actual getting things built, I think in some ways there's more action at the state level, just around clean energy in general. Obviously the big support for wind and solar deployment has come from the federal production tax credit. So having something like that for advanced nuclear could be very helpful, or an investment tax credit.
Jessica L.: I wouldn't say we don't need it, but right now more of the support is coming from the state level, but we need a lot more of everything.
Jason Jacobs: If you could wave a magic wand and make one or a small handful of things happen that would fundamentally accelerate that trajectory that aren't happening today. What are those things?
Jessica L.: I think they big one would be passing the nuclear energy leadership act, which was introduced in the Senate. It has a whole suite of exciting things that really push to actually get advanced nuclear reactors built and I'm pretty sure it's time scaled. We're aiming to have a few demonstrations of different designs before 2030 to have the federal government sign PPAs with the solar margin reactors and also building out the infrastructure for R&D, things like test reactors and also making some higher enriched uranium available to some of these companies that need new fuels.
Jessica L.: There's just a bunch of stuff in there that could really stimulate the industry across the board and really get some shovels in the ground. That would be my one wish in the short term.
Jason Jacobs: How's it looking?
Jessica L.: It's kind of stagnant right now. Congress has a lot on their plate, obviously. I do think the bill was introduced, has good bipartisan support. It just needs to be made a priority. Yeah. Maybe next administration, we'll see.
Jason Jacobs: Switching gears for a minute. One thing I'm curious about is just, it seems like when the Breakthrough Institute entered the industry, that the approach was to kind of shake things up and to maybe almost be combative or challenge some of the ways that things had always been done in environmentalism. Is that a fair statement?
Jessica L.: Yeah, for sure. I think particularly where that comes from is that when Breakthrough was founded in 2007, there was a lot of stagnation around environmental thought. The Bush administration kind of left feeling that things were going in the wrong direction, couldn't really get a lot of good stuff going and so, how do you break through that stagnation and break through those obstacles?
Jessica L.: Where we've sort of had really valuable contributions is kind of been disruptive thinking of finding well, what the environmental groups have been proposing for the last 30 years still not feasible in Congress and actually if it did go through, it would really make a difference because of these reasons. So let's find a policy that is more doable to actually get past, but then would actually make a big difference.
Jessica L.: So looking at kind of taking a new look at historical experiences with policy and with environmental trends and saying what actually was going on here and shifting the narrative to what actually works. I think we've continued to do that with energy. I think a lot of ideas around energy have become more mainstream, which is great. But now looking into our other spaces, like agriculture, or the big focus from environmental perspective has been on small scale, organic, low-input farming. What we're finding and what we're talking about is actually a lot of these sort of large scale efforts can be a lot better for the environment in different ways.
Jessica L.: Finding where technology is really helpful from an environmental perspective and food and farming is kind of a new way that we're being disruptive.
Jason Jacobs: That kind of shake things up and challenge the conventional wisdom type of approach, is that kind of a similar mindset now? Or how has that evolved in the many years that you guys have been now doing the work that you do?
Jessica L.: I think it's definitely core to Breakthrough's DNA. I think as we kind of mature on issues and as our frameworks and narratives kind of become more mainstream, it turns more into building partnerships and actually getting things implemented and getting our ideas kind of into the right places, whether it's into the hands of Senators or it's into academic departments curriculum. That's sort of the second stage where we're trying to get our ideas out there after the initial disruption. It definitely is still, we're always looking for a way to shift the narrative and disrupt people's thinking and get ;people talking about issues that they weren't really considering before.
Jason Jacobs: Thanks, yeah. That's helpful. I don't have any of the context on history, but I kind of got the census as I've been making the rounds that you guys have ruffled a little feathers over time, but it's been confusing for me because I only know a handful of you, but I went to your event and everyone I've talked to has been really super nice.
Jessica L.: Yeah. Well we've definitely built out a network of wonderful friends and family that are great to work with and they're spread out across academia and government and industry. I think there's a lot of people that where our framework particularly [inaudible 00:32:24] which we haven't touched on, really resonates with people, particularly people that maybe care about the environment, but were sort of didn't really feel like they fit in with traditional environmentalism with a capital E.
Jessica L.: So finding an outlet and a community where you can talk about your concerns around really serious environmental issues, but actually focusing on what will actually solve them rather than sort of moral or ideological solutions.
Jason Jacobs: Uh-huh (affirmative). That actually brings up an interesting point because I think Michael Schaumberger's been doing some writing recently. I know he's no longer with the Breakthrough Institute, but about nuclear and how that it shouldn't necessarily be all hands on deck from a technology standpoint and that in many ways renewables are misguided and maybe shouldn't be part of the equation.
Jason Jacobs: When I hear eco modernism, I think about pragmatists and to me, pragmatists is all hands on deck. I feel like those two statements are a little at odds and it's confusing to me honestly. How do you think about that?
Jessica L.: Well, I think pragmatism is a huge component of eco modernism and it's very important to Breakthrough. I think we can have an [inaudible 00:33:34] that runs the numbers and says, "Well actually it's cheaper or faster if you just do 100% nuclear and wind and solar have all these problems." But coming from a pragmatism angle, one thing you have to consider is that there's just a lot of people that like renewables. They are really cheap to put up and they contribute a lot to clean energy generation.
Jessica L.: I don't think it's at any way, even if your model says it would be cheap, I don't think there's any way that you could get to a system that's fully [inaudible 00:34:11] without renewables and I don't think you'd want to because I think you'd want to have ... it's not just we need all the technologies, it's that we need all the different groups that care about climate change, care about air pollution and they have different things that they like and I think getting those advocates from different technologies to think of themselves as all working on the same problem, I think that's where you really need all hands on deck.
Jessica L.: I do get this sometimes when I do energy networking events in the Bay Area is there's a lot more communitarian feel from people working in solar companies, in battery companies, in grid management where it's not that traditional, older environmentalism. It's renewables versus nuclear. In the end regeneration, people working in energy, and when I say it focuses on nuclear, they're like, "Oh, that's really cool. I focus on solar. We're going to be both." I'm really optimistic and that makes me feel really good when I hear that because it is going to take a lot of different stakeholders and people with a lot of different interests to actually make serious progress on stopping climate change.
Jessica L.: Yeah. I think Breakthrough, our framework is a lot more pragmatic and sometimes we definitely encounter a lot of particularly pro-nuclear advocates that are not so pragmatic that are very, we sometimes call hard eco modernists that are, it's nuclear or nothing. We're much more focused on how you actually make progress. It's going to take all the technologies, even natural gas. So that's where we come down.
Jason Jacobs: I don't know, I feel like every term is loaded with history and all this stuff, but I don't understand, but I'm still learning. I definitely find the pragmatic perspective is the one that resonates with me where you can't just look theoretically at what the math says. You also have to look at just realistically, what can we get done given lots of other factors that have nothing to do with the math. We need to get moving and we can't just debate and hold out for perfect. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.
Jessica L.: Yeah. Just one example ... in terms of cost and time scales, rooftop solar is really inefficient compared to utility scale solar. So if you were a dictator trying to decarbonize, you'd say, "No more rooftop solar. Just build only large scale utility solar." In reality, people really like putting solar panels on their roofs and it does generate electricity. That's a good thing. Let them do it and we should also put incentives in place to build large scale utility solar, but don't stop the good things because they're not perfect.
Jason Jacobs: One other point I can't let you escape without asking about is that when Brett [inaudible 00:36:50] asked, [inaudible 00:36:51] nuclear came on my show, one of the points that he made that kind of blew my mind is he said that if you look at the net new emissions as the enumerator and the total amount of carbon that's in the atmosphere as the denominator that it's such a small little smidge that actually all the carbon already up there is our problem and that the net new matters a lot less.
Jason Jacobs: It's not that it doesn't matter, but it just matters a lot less relative to what's already up there and that most of the focus is going on emissions reduction which is backwards.
Jessica L.: Yeah. Definitely we need to be pulling a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. Even if we stopped emitting today, we still have a big problem. I don't know if you heard this bathtub analogy where new carbon emissions are coming out of the faucet of your bathtub. The tub is already pretty full and they key now is to make the drain bigger at the bottom [inaudible 00:37:39] sink more emissions every year.
Jason Jacobs: I haven't heard that but I like that. Very easy to understand.
Jessica L.: Yeah. Our bathtub is getting over full now. We can turn off the tap, but we also need to make the drain bigger. We definitely have been thinking about how to actually make progress on pulling carbon out through technological and natural or biologic ways. Yeah, I agree. That's only one part of the problem and that's why we need to think bigger and get even more hands on deck from the carbon capture crew.
Jason Jacobs: Is it a fair assessment that most of the energy, no pun intended, is being spent on emissions reduction when really that ratio should be flipped?
Jessica L.: No. I think we need a lot more people, resources, time, going towards carbon capture and [inaudible 00:38:29], but I do think it is fair to focus on emissions reductions because there are all sorts of other bad things that come with CO2 emissions like particulates, heavy metals, socks, knocks. All these more traditional air pollutants, not to mention water pollution, the impacts of mining on communities and ecosystems that are also really important. I feel like those tend to resonate a lot more with people, particularly on the local level.
Jessica L.: Focusing on making air and water cleaner regionally can be a much bigger motivator for politicians, for state legislatures. I think that's where the pragmatic side of us still wants to focus on emissions.
Jason Jacobs: The other thing that I've heard mixed feedback on is just what role the United States has, because we've got, I think it's what, 16 or 18% of total emissions today, or did I get that right?
Jessica L.: I don't know the exact number.
Jason Jacobs: Well whatever it is, it's going to be a lot, maybe it's 30% now going down to 16%. I forget to be honest, but whatever piece it is, it's not a majority today and it's going to be significantly smaller by 2030 or 2050. So no matter what we do in the US, the real problem is places like China, India, developing countries, growth of the middle class in those places et cetera. The counter to that is yeah, but we're such a trend setter that if we take a leadership position, then others will kind of fall behind us and we're very influential in that fight.
Jason Jacobs: How do you think about that in those trade offs?
Jessica L.: Yeah. I think more from an innovation side, just in nuclear, the US was, as usually, it exported nuclear reactors all over the world. It started a lot of countries domestic programs that are now exporting to other countries. From a technology side, the US has done a ton on clean energy. Same with solar panels. I think that's more where the role in the US really matters. It still matters. 20% of emissions is not nothing.
Jessica L.: Obviously if we shrink our emissions, it matters less, but getting new and better clean energy technologies out into the world, whether that's through exporting or through partnering with these emerging economies to develop new technologies that work well for them. We saw how the US had a huge impact with the Green revolution in agriculture where scientists would collaborate across countries and develop crops that met the needs of developing economies. I think a similar thing needs to happen with energy technologies and the US is a great partner in terms of demonstrating new technologies and collaborating on R&D.
Jessica L.: I think that's where the leadership and the role of the US totally matters.
Jason Jacobs: So if you had a big pot of money, let's say $100 billion dollars and you could put it towards anything to maximize this impact towards the climate fight, where would it go? How would you allocate it to have the biggest impact?
Jessica L.: Well, okay, two things. I think, obviously I would say nuclear, and in particular I would ... this is wonky, but this is my answer. I would do a competitive bidding process for a big pot of money to finance first of a kind projects. Kind of like how NASA did with commercial space flights. I'd say we want five nuclear power plants in the US. Give us your proposals for advanced reactors and we'll fund them and they can be over market rate because they're first of a kind. I think that would move a lot of private money as well.
Jessica L.: The other one, and this is just off the top of my head, but I think electrifying transportation is the big one. More electric rail, more subway systems. In the US, it's abysmal, but even in developing countries, getting their rail and their urban transport in place and electrified can make it easier to decarbonize in the future.
Jason Jacobs: I like your answer. One thing that it made me think of as well that I picked up on earlier in the discussion and haven't had a chance to address is you mentioned at the very beginning of the discussion that at the Breakthrough Institute, you look to make energy cheap. And finding ways to make energy cheap in a market based way, what does that mean in terms of your personal thought or the Breakthrough Institute's thoughts on price on carbon?
Jessica L.: The price on carbon can do a lot, particularly when you have clean technologies available, but it tends to work on the margins. If you don't have a clean energy that you can deploy, a carbon price just makes energy more expensive for a lot of people, and particularly for low income people. We sort of see that as the drawback, but definitely if done right, particularly if you do tax and invest. So if you tax carbon, but then invest it into deploying clean energy, that can keep energy cheap while cleaning it up.
Jessica L.: It definitely has benefits. There's a lot of loopholes, particularly with leakage internationally where it can actually harm the economy. That's sort of where we've been hesitant, but we definitely would support one if the money's used for good things.
Jason Jacobs: I guess in that regard, do we need one? If so, what form should it take?
Jessica L.: I think it should definitely use the money to not just deploy clean energy, but to really stimulate innovation in a way that is bringing costs down. Production tax credits for wind and solar have done a lot for economies of scale in terms of bringing the cost down for wind and solar. I think something similar would be really helpful for nuclear. If the money was used on technological deployment, on public transit, I think that would be great. It doesn't have to be that large to raise a lot of money, but I think you also want to have protections in there for low income consumers.
Jason Jacobs: It sounds like some type of revenue neutral tax where the revenue is being redeployed into technology innovation?
Jessica L.: I wouldn't say ... so revenue neutral usually refers to giving all the money back to the people, which I don't think works very well. But yes, I would say investing the money back into the energy system.
Jason Jacobs: Yes. I probably used the wrong word. I didn't necessarily mean dividend back to the people. Yeah, I just used the wrong word. Cool, last question. We have lots of listeners that they might be getting their PHD's in astrophysics. They might be in law firms. They might be teachers. They might be hedge fund managers, any number of things, but they're increasingly caring about climate change and trying to figure out how to help and not really understanding the problem or where to start. That's not the only demographic that listens to the pod, but that's a big one.
Jason Jacobs: I guess speaking to them for a moment, what advice do you have?
Jessica L.: I'd say follow what's happening in your state around climate. I think that's a much more digestible process to follow and there's so much happening at the state level that you can get involved in really small ways, calling your legislature telling them to support clean energy standards. Even in smaller scale, just figuring out what your community's doing around investing in energy projects or the kind of projects they think is important. Definitely if you're really passionate about it, I'd say focus on what government's doing and try to get your representatives to push harder on investing in clean energy and innovation.
Jason Jacobs: Awesome. I think that's a great place to stop, but I learned so much in this discussion. It was fun as well so Jessica, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Jessica L.: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on my climate journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co. Note that is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get the .com, but right now, .co. You can also find me on Twitter at @JJacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode, or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear.
Jason Jacobs: Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.