Today's guest is Sonia Aggarwal, Vice President at Energy Innovation. Energy Innovation is an 8-year old international nonprofit think tank that helps companies and governments with developing and implementing clean energy policies. Pursuing a mission to support policies that most effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Sonia leads the firm's power sector transformation and energy policy solutions programs. In 2012, she spearheaded the creation of “America's Power Plan,” Energy Innovation's platform for innovative thinking on policy solutions for clean, reliable, and affordable electric power in the U.S. I was excited for this episode because so many guests on My Climate Journey have said that policy is the biggest lever we've got, but we haven’t really double clicked on that and dug into what that means and how to bring it about. It just so happens that filling in those gaps and educating lawmakers on what needs to happen is what Sonya does for a living! We cover a lot in this episode, including a deep dive into the clean energy policy landscape, what the different levers are, and for whom. We also discuss the role of federal vs state governments here in the US, and the impact a price on carbon may have. I learned a lot in this one, and I bet you will too. Enjoy the show! You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Correction: Energy Innovation started at the end of 2011 - beginning of 2012, not in 2013 - 2014.
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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 try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Today's guest is Sonia Aggarwal, a Vice President at Energy Innovation whose mission is accelerating clean energy by supporting the policies that most effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sonia leads the firm's power sector transformation and energy policy solutions programs. In 2012, she spearheaded the creation of America's Power Plan, Energy Innovation's platform for innovative thinking on policy solutions for clean, reliable, and affordable electric power in the U.S. I was excited for this episode because so many guests on My Climate Journey have said that policy is the biggest lever we've got, but we've been hard pressed to double click on that and really get into specifics and Sonya does that for a living. So we spend this episode really digging into the policy side, what the different potential levers are there and for whom. So how we should think about federal versus state, how we should think about U.S. versus other places and how we should think about things like a price on carbon versus subsidies versus renewable portfolio standards versus mandates, et cetera. Great discussion. Learned a lot. Excited to bring Sonia out here. So Sonya Aggarwal, welcome to the show.
Sonia Aggarwal: Thank you so much for having me, Jason, it's great to be here.
Jason Jacobs: Thank you for making the time.
We're of course cooped up in our respective homes here with this global pandemic that's going on. I have to admit for when this first started happening, I, it was pretty hard to put one foot in front of the other and focus on climate change. Not because it's not going to continue to be a critical problem, but because the, you know, this near term crisis that we're facing is...sucks so bad, but I think where I'm coming around to now is that, you know, it will be hard, but we will get through it and, and how we get through it and come out of it matters a lot as it relates to the clean energy transition and climate change, which as an underlying issue that will make all these other issues worse.
So I'm back to putting one foot in front of the other, at least to the best I can. And I think your background, especially being so deep on the policy side of the clean energy transition is a really important perspective to bring on. And I think a timely one as well.
Sonia Aggarwal: Great. Yeah, it's been a really rough time, I think for everyone these days.
So I appreciate that kind of resilience that people are showing in this time and, and how people are coming together. It's been pretty amazing to see some of those silver linings on what otherwise is that really hard and challenging situation.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I think it's important. We call it to several linings, but also not, not forget that you know, that there are several linings to an otherwise horrendous, awful situation. And as much as I'm miserable, cooped up in my house here, it, it's a pretty privileged position to be in, to be able to be cooped up in my house. And there's a lot of people who either don't have that luxury or would kill to have a job to go to so they could put food on the table. And it doesn't mean climate's not a critically important issue. It's just that, you know, in the short term, there's some more pressing stuff that we're dealing with here.
Sonia Aggarwal: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. But on a brighter note, why don't we jump in and talk about Energy Innovation? What is it and what you guys do?
Sonia Aggarwal: Sure. Yeah. So Energy Innovation is a think tank that works with policymakers to prioritize which policies can make the biggest difference on climate and clean energy.
And also on how to design those policies. We are a pretty small shop. About eight years old. And we work here in the United States and in China as well as in some other countries around the world. And we really try to focus on pattern-setting moments and energy policy, where there can be a few decisions that are made that will have lasting implications on the energy mix.
Jason Jacobs: And when did the organization get started and how did it get started and why did it get started?
Sonia Aggarwal: Let's see, it was late 2013, early 2014, and we got started. Let's see. It was an interesting moment. I think we were kind of feeling like the energy policy world was a bit adrift and there was not a lot of clear information that was available in a format that policymakers could easily understand that was organized and really logical for people to be able to think about what can make the biggest difference on kind of the most pressing challenge at the time, at least. So we decided that it would be interesting to start a small group of researchers who would think about that problem, quantitatively as well as try to draw on experience from countries around the world and jurisdictions around.
You know, inside each country to draw out the best lessons for policy design to kind of scale up the clean energy solutions that we knew were coming down the pike. So that's kind of why we got started and we've kind of been at it since then working directly with policy makers and with a lot of partners, we very much work in a collaborative way with many others who are doing fantastic work in this realm as well.
Jason Jacobs: And what led you down the path to do energy policy work in the first place?
Sonia Aggarwal: So I kind of have always loved nature and have kind of grown up watching the ways that the natural systems are changing. And it's kind of incredible that we're even able to perceive those changes in our lifetimes, just given how long the earth has been kind of evolving in different ways since it formed.
But to have changes in such a short period of time, really made a very large impression on me. I actually loved math and studied astronomy and ended up working at an observatory in South America at the beginning of my career, researching other planets. I really felt very compelled by this one and the challenges that we have here.
So turned a lot of my attention back toward trying to make a career in clean energy and later policy.
Jason Jacobs: And when you look at the policy landscape today, as it relates to energy policy, what do you see?
Sonia Aggarwal: So I think, gosh, I think there's a lot of solutions that are quite clear now that we can deploy quickly.
The situation has changed quite a lot in terms of the availability of clean energy technologies and their costs. So we're just in a totally different moment than we were even just a few years ago in terms of our options for getting really low cost, reliable, clean energy deployed at scale. So that's a really exciting thing.
Of course, we still are seeing quite a lot of. Incumbency and the transition is going a lot slower than we need it to go. So I think, especially in the United States, we haven't had any sort of coherent federal energy policy really in my lifetime. So I think there's a lot of work to be done both at the federal level and at the state level too, make a clear path forward and ensure that we're getting the lowest cost and, and cleanest resources out there for people.
Jason Jacobs: And I definitely want to dig into that and have a number of questions at the policy level. But before we do, maybe we could go back to Energy Innovation and talk more about both the capabilities and makeup of the firm and the kind of work that the firm does, but also your perch within the firm and what you're spending your time doing and thinking about.
Sonia Aggarwal: Sure. Yeah. So Energy Innovation has a pretty cool team of wonderful folks who have a diverse set of backgrounds in things like engineering and economics and law. And we come together to think about those questions that I mentioned before. So what are the priority actions that we can take to decarbonize the energy system?
How do you design policies to really make those things work at scale? So that leads us to, we have developed a model that looks at all of these options in house, and it's an open source system dynamics model. So it's available online. If anyone wants to check it out.
Jason Jacobs: And where do we find that?
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah. Sorry. So it's EnergyPolicy.solutions. So there's no ".com" or anything. It's just ".solutions." And you can see the model there. We built it now for eight countries and we have another three in the pipeline that should come out soon. The countries we cover actually represent 55% of global emissions, which is another really important point that emissions are very concentrated at this point in a relatively small number of countries.
So if we can get the policies right there and get the technologies deployed, we have a reasonable chance of addressing this, this climate challenges at scale. So this model looks across all of the different sectors of the economy that produce greenhouse gas emissions, and then allows users to test different scenarios of if there was a standard for vehicles, for example, or if more electric vehicle chargers were deployed at the same time as we start decarbonizing the electricity system.
So we can see together what the combined impacts of various policies in different sectors might be on greenhouse gas, emissions and costs for different actors in society and other public health impacts and stuff like that. So that's one big area and we use that model directly with policy makers in these countries to help them think about sorting through all of the different policy options that are in front of them to understand which of them are likely to make the largest impact on climate and achieve their other goals. that's one area. We also do quite a lot of deep work on the electricity system and how the institutions that run it need to evolve to better support a majority zero carbon electricity system.
So that takes us to utility regulation, wholesale power markets, rate design. How do you operate the grid as it changes to using more variable, renewables, like wind and solar, and how do you keep it in balance with things like, you know, demand, response and storage and transmission. So we have a pretty deep practice in that area as well.
We also work, like I said, quite a lot in China on things like the carbon pricing program that's burgeoning there. These days, we're doing quite a lot of work on stimulus programs and also thinking about just how, how this horrible economic situation that we find ourselves in can be helped in ways that also drive clean energy.
Jason Jacobs: And Energy Innovation is wholly a nonprofit organization?
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah, we operate as a nonprofit.
Jason Jacobs: As a nonprofit. Do you have sources of revenue and customers?
Sonia Aggarwal: So we are supported by foundations that are interested in seeing a decarbonized world.
Jason Jacobs: So no sources of revenue fully by grants and philanthropy?
Sonia Aggarwal: That's right. Yeah. We work directly with policy makers as if we were a consultant that they had to pay, but we're in the lucky position that we have our time covered by our philanthropic support. So we can work for them for free.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. And so I don't know if I'll use the right words here, but I've heard the term on energy Twitter and things like that of "wonk" where what I think of wonk.
And I don't know if wonk is a favorable term or a derogatory term or what, but it's like the people that are really in the weeds of like all the different policy mechanisms and types of policies and, and state versus federal versus local versus foreign versus country by country, sector, by sector, et cetera.
And then there's, you know, when I think of like, the politicians, I think of like the opposite of wonk, right? Because they have to be so broad across all these different areas, not just energy policy, but everything policy, right. And plus elections and democracy and constituents and trade groups and lobbying organizations and all this other stuff that I don't know much about coming from my little startup bubble.
So, where do you guys fit? Do you, are you kind of a bridge between the wonks and the and the policymakers? Or how would you describe your place on the stack?
Sonia Aggarwal: That's a great question. I would say we're pretty squarely in the wonk category. We are really there as a resource for policy makers. So if they're an elected official or oftentimes we're working with their staff or sometimes regulatory bodies or folks who are in those decision making roles, we can help them kind of go deep on what is required when it comes to clean energy and climate policy.
So that's that's really our role. And it is exactly how you say, I mean, these folks are having to make decisions across so many different topic areas that they just, you know, don't have time to go quite as deep on each and every single one. So that's where we come in because we can, we can help them access the best information or get connected to experts beyond us or help them with analysis that will help them kind of make their case, ensure that policies are designed well to achieve what they want to achieve.
Jason Jacobs: From my seat, and these are definitely the cheap seats, so feel free to tell me all the reasons why I'm wrong and not thinking about it properly, but it, it seems like overwhelmingly that this point there's a good amount of consensus on the fact that the climate is changing and that, you know, humans are playing a big part in that, and that we do need to do things about it and that where there seems to be a bunch of debate is more around what we should do. And the reason I bring that up is because it seems like as it relates to policy initiatives or, or even technology choices or things like that, there's, there's not necessarily a clear right and wrong.
It's more about tradeoffs and choices. And from my seat incentives, because there'll be winners and there'll be losers with whatever choices we make. And so how do you think about those incentives and tradeoffs given that there isn't necessarily a right answer in terms of the council that you're providing these policymakers?
Sonia Aggarwal: Such a great question, because there are so many different ways to tackle this problem, and everybody has a different angle that they're bringing to the table. So typically what we do is we work with the policy maker to understand what are the pressures that they're facing, what are the constituencies that they need to answer to?
What do they care about besides climate, in terms of, you know, public health or air quality or other objectives that a lot of climate and clean energy policies can really help achieve also. So that helps us sort through the many options for policy makers. And then what we bring to the table is a really clear focus on tons. And that's really our metric of success at the end of the day is are we reducing greenhouse gas emissions? And are we doing it at speed and scale? So like you said, there's lots of ways of actually implementing policies. There's lots of different technologies that can deliver low carbon. So we are pretty agnostic on the policy mechanism and the technology, as long as they really work.
And they're, they've been proven to work and we'll help policy makers choose between some of these options. So, you know, the way that we kind of categorize some of the options are, like you said, incentives, we kind of call that pricing oriented policies that could be either taxes or subsidies or some sort of financial incentive that is changed.
And then there's also standards, which set kind of a minimum performance for certain things like a standard for an appliance that enables it to function using less energy, for example. Another category is research and development support. And that one is just for helping ensure that we have the types of options that we're going to need later on, as we start to eliminate some of the easier to eliminate emissions out of the economy.
So those three types of policy can work really well together.
Jason Jacobs: Incentives R&D. And what was the third? I missed it. I'm sorry.
Sonia Aggarwal: Standards.
Jason Jacobs: Oh, got it. Got it. So, one question that that brings to mind is that you talked about how you think in tons and that's what success looks like to you is more tons. I would like to think that elected officials think in the same way, but I worry that they actually think in terms of getting reelected or getting elected in the first place and that's their success metric. And that everything feeds into that. And to the extent, that thinking tons, doesn't help them get elected, then they aren't going to care about tons. How do you respond to that? Am I, am I off base?
Sonia Aggarwal: I mean, I think that it's a mix, right?
I mean, everywhere there's people who kind of are motivated by different things, but you're right. I mean, I think one of the great things about working on climate and clean energy policy is that it actually has so many of these benefits. That go beyond just the tons. So kind of the lens that we're bringing to the table is focused on those that can make the largest difference on climate.
Right? But at the same time, those policies are, they drive jobs, they drive economic development, there's new kind of, um, projects that show up in communities based on these policies. So there's a lot to be gained, you know, better air quality means, you know, healthier. Healthier people. And I think one of the ways that we sort of approach that is, you know, what are all of the other economic and societal and health benefits that come from implementing some of these policies?
And can we also make sure that we're talking about those at the same time, as we're thinking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Jason Jacobs: And so if I can kind of parrot back what I heard to make sure that I understand it, I think that you have the expertise to essentially come in and act like consultants, but because you're a nonprofit, you're a consultant with an agenda and that agenda is tons. And so you will help educate and help inform their decision making and you will do your best to make it easy for them to do the thing that drives tons while serving the things that drive their interests versus going in and trying to make their interests something that they're not.
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah, that's exactly right. We kind of Energy Innovations niche is really working with policymakers who are interested in doing something. And like you said, it's more on the long side than the politics side. So it's not convincing new policymakers as often on, you know, the fact that they could do something on climate.
It's much more working with those leaders at agencies or in elected bodies. That already would like to do something and ensuring that what they spend their political capital doing is the biggest possible impact.
Jason Jacobs: And what are the different means by which you're engaging with these people? Is it typically one on one?
Is it in big groups? Is it digitally? Is it in person? Is it through publishing research? I mean, you talked about some of the things you're helping them to do, but, but how, yeah. All of those things actually, so I mean more and more digital these days, but certainly a lot of one on one work with policymakers and their staff, but also we have done programs where we work with, for example, the associations of policymakers, for example, the national governors association or the national association of regulatory utility commissioners. Those are people who have a really big influence over the energy decisions in America. And when they get together, it's a great opportunity for us to talk with them about solutions that we see that can drive a lot of the goals that, that we'd like to see in that they'd like to see.
Sonia Aggarwal: So we work with them in groups. We work with them one on one. We also do quite a lot of publishing of research. And then we, we also, like I said, have that quantitative model, which we've put out there as an open source tool for anyone to be able to use. And we always partner with local organizations in each of the countries where this is built so that they can also have this tool to be able to use it in their own work with policy makers on an ongoing basis.
So we work, I should say, it's not only policies, policy makers we work with. We work with lots of other organizations and folks who are kind of in this realm of thinking about the best policies for reducing greenhouse gases.
Jason Jacobs: And do you spend more time on one side of the aisle versus another?
Sonia Aggarwal: We really spend time with whoever's interested in reducing emissions, certainly at the U.S. federal level that has tended to be more on the democratic side.
Although there are some great Republican champions as well, but I would say a lot of the folks that we work with at the state level as well. There's people kind of have all flavors.
Jason Jacobs: And when you ask people or when I've asked people and I've asked a lot of people at this point, like what's the most impactful thing we can do to accelerate the clean energy transition.
Overwhelmingly people say policy, but there's kind of a spectrum, like on the one side of the spectrum, it's like, We need a price on carbon. I don't care what form we just need a price on carbon. If we put on price on carbon, the higher, the better, and that's the most impactful thing we can do. It's so simple.
And then on the other side of the spectrum, it's like, whoa, it's insurmountably complicated because we need to go region by region and sector by sector. And it's a mix of things depending on where you are and who you are. And, and it's like so complicated that it's just paralyzing. How do you guys look at the policy landscape?
Like where on that spectrum, do you think the reality is?
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah. I mean, I think it really just depends on the political situation in some ways, which of these policies is going to have the largest chance of actually passing. But I think if we just sort of put that aside and say, you know, if we could wave our magic wand and have the policies that we would really love.
I think that there's a role for carbon pricing, but I also think that there are some failures that carbon pricing would have in terms of driving down emissions. For example, people don't really change their behavior that much based on changes in gas prices, for example. So the transportation sector is going to be tough to really transform at a deep deep level with carbon pricing alone.
Also with buildings. It's a sort of similar thing. Sometimes the people who occupy the buildings are not the same ones who pay the bills for energy. So that's another area where carbon pricing may fall short. So we recommend there being kind of a few killer app policies in each sector that are really worth paying attention to, and it's worth thinking through each of the sectors to understand, look, it's like at the end of the day, it's power plants, factories, buildings, and cars that produce most of our greenhouse gas emissions.
If we can think critically about how to make sure that those sectors continue to succeed and thrive but with a zero carbon alternative, that's really the policy that we need to focus on. So, you know, for example, for power plants, having a clean energy standard is really, can be really transformative. And we've seen that in many states across the United States, as the share of renewable energy grows under these performance standards in vehicles, having basic performance standards, coupled with targets for energy or for electric vehicles.
Those are kind of really great policies to start with. In the building sector, having smart building codes for new buildings makes a ton of sense. And then also having support for retrofitting. The old buildings is really important in places like the United States, where we have most of the buildings already built that we are going to have for the next 30 years. And then finally in the industry sector, it's probably the more challenging sector from a policy perspective, but carbon pricing can certainly help in the industry sector and then also setting standards as well for declining emissions in that sector. So while it's not, you know, our perspective is not one policy.
We don't think that carbon pricing can do at all, but we also think that, to your point, it's really tough. If you say, you know, there's hundreds of policies that we need to implement, but actually there are a few that really have been proven to make a big difference in lots of different jurisdictions around the world.
And if we can focus on those, that will be a big help.
Jason Jacobs: When you are determining where to, where to allocate your time as an organization, it seems like there's two vectors or at least two that I'm thinking about. I'm probably missing some, but, but there's how much impact it can actually have, but there's also how likely is it to get done.
So how much do you weigh that second one where when determining, so if you, for example, if you had one that was. By far the most impactful, but also by far the least likely to get done. Would you spend your time there? Would you focus on something that might be more incremental, but more likely to make progress sooner?
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah, it's a great question. I think it really on that spectrum that you laid out, I think we're closer to the end of let's get something done because we really believe in the idea that if we, if we start deploying clean energy technologies, now, then that kicks off all kinds of positive feedbacks as we go forward.
So it brings down the cost. So it's more and more of them get deployed. People see that, you know, there's good jobs in those areas and there's constituencies that get built around these things. So if we can get going sooner, rather than later, we have more momentum for kind of the bigger ticket items later.
But at the same time we really do spend, I would say maybe 25% of our time conceiving of those pathways that will actually win in the time required to address this climate challenge and ensure that we're putting research out there and talking to whoever is interested in, in really advancing those ideas and kind of generating momentum around those ideas, because we need to have that vision for where are we going in the long run at the same time as we get done, what we can today.
Jason Jacobs: If you look at the current landscape, it sure seems like we're pretty polarized politically as a nation. Some people say that it's irreparably so, and other people say, actually, there's a lot more overlap in the middle than meets the eye. And that the loudest minorities on both sides are the ones that dominate the air time.
But there's a lot more alignment as a people and maybe even in the government then than meets the eye, given that you spend a lot more time in these circles than me. What's your view?
Sonia Aggarwal: I guess I would say I take heart in the states a lot because the states are aware a lot of the energy decisions get made in the United States.
And I would say that the politics are easier in the states. And there is a lot more of what you were talking about in terms of people really seeing eye to eye and kind of being more on the same page than they might be, for example, in Congress right now. So I think there's a huge amount of opportunity for bipartisanship, especially at the state level.
And also I think that there is some opportunity at the federal level, but I, I think, you know, for our issues that really will drive the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the United States is, is putting out there. The states are kind of where it's at.
Jason Jacobs: In order to get to where we need to go, does federal need to lead the way or can we do it without them essentially?
Sonia Aggarwal: I mean, ideally right. We would have, you know, a strong federal plan and that would really help, I think, in many realms, but at the same time, it's, I think really heartened by the amount of progress that states have been able to make kind of in the absence of a coherent federal energy policy. You know, incredible leadership.
That's kind of come out of the states and there they're also working together in new ways, learning from each other and kind of driving this forward. But, you know, we have, especially with the electricity system, I mean, with all of our energy systems, they're super integrated and you know, they, they don't respect state borders.
So we do kind of need that collaboration across states if we lack the federal leadership in this area. But I think there's a lot we can get done at the state level.
Jason Jacobs: Is bipartisan support essential for durable legislation?
Sonia Aggarwal: I definitely think so. I think we've seen a lot of policies that are really hard fought kind of flip back in other realms.
And I don't think that climate would be likely to be any different. Not that we have a ton of track record to really look at that yet, but I do think that durability is something we need to pay a lot of attention to.
Jason Jacobs: With the work of Energy Innovation, you talked about pounds. One thing I didn't hear you mention is things like jobs, things like universal basic income, those are not directly related to pounds, but they are directly related to the choices that get made as it relates to, you know, tons of co two.
So are those within the purview of what you think about in regards to the implications of policy? Or is that for another group?
Sonia Aggarwal: No, it's definitely inbounds and more so all the time, but let me revise that because actually universal basic income has not been in our bounds, but certainly jobs and economic implications, other than that are very much inbounds.
And also, as I mentioned, the public health impacts of burning fossil fuels in populated areas like driving a lot of diesel vehicles, for example, in cities has a major public health impact that it could be addressed by, by policies that also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like moving to electric vehicles.
So very much so on public health and jobs and sort of economic development opportunities related to these policies that that's all stuff that we look at and we, we factor in quite a lot.
Jason Jacobs: Do you take stances as it relates to specific technology choices?
Sonia Aggarwal: We usually try to talk about policies that are technology neutral and we're seeking the least cost technologies.
So that honestly leads you to some technology conclusions, especially these days, because if you're looking for least cost there's choices that just emerge in that realm, but we really try not to fall in love with any particular technology. We're just talking about trying to get those that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the fastest and the cheapest out there at scale.
Jason Jacobs: So can we do it quick punch list of technology, just to kind of get a temperature check on, on how you guys think?
Sonia Aggarwal: Sure, do you want to go sector by sector? How do you...
Jason Jacobs: Well, let me just toss a few out there and you can tell me if it's outside of your purview or, or what, but natural gas as one.
Sonia Aggarwal: Natural gas is a really good one for right now in the United States.
We definitely believe that we do not need to build any new, natural gas generation facilities. That is kind of a big statement, given that if you look at the queues of what's being proposed to be built in the last couple of years of what generation has been built. It's a mix of renewables and natural gas, but natural gas is, is a big part of that.
We have done some analysis, which looks at the electricity system and kind of where we need to get to by which year to meet climate goals. And then also from a reliability perspective, how do we make sure that we're delivering electricity? That is it's going to be keeping the lights on for everyone and affordable.
And it's quite clear that no new natural gas is really required. We have built quite a lot of natural gas in this country. We need to reduce the amount of coal down to zero and then, as renewables and other zero carbon power generation technologies get built, we can use the existing, natural gas system as a balance for that energy until we have storage deployed at scale or demand response, and other kind of ways of balancing that resource.
Jason Jacobs: Should we ban fracking?
Sonia Aggarwal: I think so. I mean, I will say yes on that, but I do think that working on the demand side for these technologies is kind of our preferred mechanism when we're working with policymakers. So thinking about really what, what do we need to make sure that people's basic energy needs are met and affordably and reliably.
And we find that, you know, natural gas is not building new, natural gas is not in that equation.
Jason Jacobs: What about carbon capture and storage?
Sonia Aggarwal: Well, I think that's another one where we have had some attempts at demonstrations here in this country and in some other countries with a little bit more success, I think that carbon capture and sequestration will be really important for the heavy industry sector where there's a lot of emissions that just come from the processes of making things like cement or steel. So we will need to be able to capture those emissions and store them. So certainly very supportive of more demonstration projects for CCS. Right now, it is not cost effective, certainly in the power sector compared with other zero carbon technologies.
But, you know, that's, that's kind of why support for that demonstration is important at this stage.
Jason Jacobs: Do you believe that it ever could be without a price on carbon?
Sonia Aggarwal: It's going to be tough. I don't know how it would compete with, for example, other power generation technologies that are zero carbon.
Jason Jacobs: What about nuclear?
Sonia Aggarwal: Well, in the United States, we have our existing nuclear fleet. And then there's a lot of talk about the potential for trying to build new nuclear. But I think again, it's one of those areas where the technology is substantially more expensive than others. Zero carbon alternatives. And it's kind of been really slow going and with cost overruns and kind of the latest nuclear facility.
It's not just here in the United States, but also in other countries. So it's sort of our view that, you know, if we have sufficient other lower cost sources for kind of moving forward that we should focus on deployment at scale of those while keeping the existing nuclear around as long as it's safe and can kind of continue to operate.
Jason Jacobs: And how far can solar and wind take us without cracking the long-duration storage problem. And do you think that we'll ever crack the long-duration storage problem in a way that is economical?
Sonia Aggarwal: I think we can go quite a lot of the way with renewables. I mean, wind and solar will be the primary sources, but also we have existing hydro and some geothermal and stuff like that as well that we can kind of build from.
But we're about 40% of those resources right now. And we've been working with some researchers. To examine the question of how quickly could we get to say 90%, zero carbon resources if we rely on the existing zero carbon sources we have, including nuclear and hydro and all of the zero carbon sources we have and kind of build on those.
And we, we picked 90% because of that question that you raised around the long duration storage. And we think that that could bind, you know, after 90%, but we think we can get to 90%, zero carbon without really having that be a huge issue. So, you know, we might have that last 10% might still be some of that existing, natural gas keeping our system in balance.
So we have found that. The biggest barrier between the us and 90%, zero carbon electricity is the deployment times. It's not the availability of technology. It's not reliability. And it's actually finally not the affordability either. These technologies are just they've come down in costs so much that we actually can build at an enormous rate while keeping costs the same as they are today for customers.
Just because we've reached this incredible crossover point in the cost, especially compared with continuing to run existing coal plants. So we found that, you know, if you increase the deployment rate of wind and solar, by say around three times what we have done in our best years in this country, we could get there by sometime between 2030 and 2035, and that would be cost effective.
We've also found from our research and there'll be a really exciting study. That'll come out in May that looks at this at a detailed grid, reliability level. So that that's exciting work, but makes us have confidence that we can do this at a pretty big scale and we can do it relatively quickly. And then our kind of view on the longterm storage question is that we've been surprised by technology so many times.
Right? And I think there's some promising kind of first attempts at this that are starting to crop up in Europe and some parts of the U S and I'm quite hopeful that if we have 30 years to figure out this problem, that we will come up with some really good solutions and that they can come down in cost.
Jason Jacobs: One question we didn't touch on so far is just, I mean, I know you mentioned us and China, but just I mean, what we do here in the U.S. how important is it in the context of this global carbon budget and what should the U.S. his role be and where do we fit into this puzzle?
Sonia Aggarwal: So the U.S. is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter right now.
So that's already a huge deal. We are amongst the top 20, which are responsible for three quarters of the emissions. So, you know, one, if we wanted to lead on climate here in the United States, we could work with those other top 20 economies and really share lessons about you know, what are we learning on decarbonization and how quickly can we make this happen?
And can we get our engineers together who run our grids and ensure that they're trading lessons about how this transition is happening. So I think there's a lot that could be done from the United States in the international community. That would be really important. And just our emissions alone are big enough that, you know, if we just work on reducing emissions here, we'll make a large difference on greenhouse on sort of overall climate impacts, but also being in this club that we should all be trying to get out of, of the top 20 countries in terms of emissions could also sort of be another angle where we could make a difference at scale, you know, addressing three quarters of the problem.
Jason Jacobs: And if we take a step back and we look at the current policy landscape and where we need to go, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing or make one thing happen that would play the biggest role in helping get us in a stronger position on the policy front. What would that be?
Sonia Aggarwal: Leadership from our federal government. And that may look, you know, many different ways, but I think really having a constructive conversation with members from both sides of the aisle and with the executive in the white house, and really thinking about this as the economic and public health opportunity that it is and driving this kind of new energy landscape here in the United States could be good for many, many reasons.
And I think that that would be my biggest hope is just for that, that leadership.
Jason Jacobs: And has this global pandemic that we're in the midst of shifted any of your thinking or priorities as it relates to this transition?
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah. I mean, certainly there's practical implications, of course. I mean, first and foremost, we have to address the crisis that we have on our hands.
And climate is not the priority right now, but as we start to move through this really awful situation. There will be more opportunities to try to get our economy back on its feet and running again. And I think we have some great evidence from prior stimulus and, you know, just from the industries on how clean energy can really contribute to job growth and economic development and really good, durable, and healthy jobs for people as we start to recover.
Once this is behind us. So in that sense, I think we're thinking a lot more about those kinds of opportunities of rebuilding and growth that also help us transform our energy system.
Jason Jacobs: Do worry that coming out of this, some of the progress that's been made so far that we are poised to make will be set back?
Sonia Aggarwal: Yeah. I mean, there's already some reports that are, are disturbing out of the clean energy industries about how this economic situation is impacting them. But I think, you know, all of the industries are being impacted. All of the individuals across the U.S. are being so impacted right now that I think really, I don't know that the climate and clean energy groups are any harder hit. I think we will need to take the time that we need to kind of move through this and then, and then we'll be able to move more into growth again. But I mean, I think it's a setback for, for everyone.
Jason Jacobs: And if someone offered you a hundred billion dollars, but in order to get it, you had to allocate it towards whatever you thought would be highest impact in accelerating the clean energy transition. Where would you put that money and how would you allocate it?
Sonia Aggarwal: Okay. So here's what I would do. I would look at the top emitting countries. Again, I keep going back to this, but this is what we use as our rule of thumb. So look at where the emissions are coming from. Follow the tons we say. So finding out in those top countries, what are the different decisions that are coming up in the next three to five years, say that can make the largest possible difference on greenhouse gas emissions. And then I would direct that money toward any type of mechanism that would be required to help make sure those decisions land in the direction of reducing greenhouse gas emissions instead of increasing them.
So maybe that's grassroots organizing or political work or it's technical analysis or it's working directly with policy makers or working with businesses, but whatever those decisions are that can make the biggest difference is where I would focus that money.
Jason Jacobs: And then last question is a bunch of people that listen to this podcast are people like me that maybe were focusing on other sectors and are trying to reallocate their time and attention and resources to this one. And so, I mean, obviously we should vote, but beyond voting, you know, for people that are ambitious and want to do more, what advice do you have for them on what they can do to be most impactful in facilitating this transition?
Sonia Aggarwal: I guess I would say thinking about your skills and also what makes you happy?
That's sounds very soft, but I really think that starting there can be really powerful because the climate issue is going to touch every aspect of society. And there's going to be important work to do on this issue, whether it's mitigating greenhouse gas emissions coming up with the new solutions that will replace the polluting ones, ensuring that the business models are really strong and can grow over time to deploy these resources at greater scale.
There's just so many ways to address the climate problem that I think there's a way to find a niche in this problem based on whatever skills you know, you are, you have and want to bring to the table, perhaps that sounds a little vague, but I don't think that you have to be an economist or an engineer or, or a policy maker or something to make a difference on this problem, I guess is what I'm saying.
I think, you know, that, that there's going to be opportunities to make impacts on greenhouse gases from many different purchase in society. So finding something that you can commit to and that you will, you know, really feel good at the end of the day that you've done it. I think it's a great way to get involved.
Jason Jacobs: Is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have, or any parting words for listeners?
I don't think so. I guess it's been great to be in conversation with you about these important topics. And I look forward to kind of keeping in touch and happy to hear from anyone who listens to this and has any thoughts or ideas or feedback.
How should people find you?
Sonia Aggarwal: You can find me I'm work at Energy Innovation. My email's email@example.com. So you can find me there.
Jason Jacobs: Well, Sonia, I can't thank you enough for coming on the show. This is a thorny topic that I had particularly little expertise in before heading down this climate path a year and a half ago, but it's such an important one.
If you want to have an impact on this problem, that I have no choice, but to take my medicine and continue to learn more about it. And I thought today was a tremendous education. So thank you for that. And thank you for all of the work that you do.
Sonia Aggarwal: Thank you. Great to talk to you.
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 my climate journey dot C O note that is dot C O not dot com. Someday we'll get the.com, but right now dot CO. You can also find me on Twitter @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests.
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