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National Capital Area Chapter

Washington, DC

20th Annual Energy Policy Conference

 

James Koehler, President, NCAC; and Jim McDonnell, Vice-President, NCAC, at the 20th Annual Energy Policy Conference. (Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 12 April 2016.)

The National Capital Area Chapter of the U.S. Association for Energy Economics (NCAC) held its 20th Annual Energy Policy Conference at Georgetown University on April 12th, 2016, on the theme, “Beyond the Rhetoric: Energy Economics in a Carbon-Constrained World - Markets, Barriers and Pathways.” With just under two hundred meeting attendees, this year’s conference was among the Chapter’s largest. The conference was chaired by NCAC-USAEE Vice President Jim McDonnell.  Current NCAC President James Koehler delivered the welcome and opening remarks.* 

Carbon in Our Atmosphere

The conference opened by laying a foundation of scientific data.  CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere over geologic time and human history were examined as were current and projected levels.  The sources of carbon emissions were discussed as was the derivation and significance of the often heard 2 degree and 450 ppm thresholds.  Also discussed was how CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations “map” onto climate and the implications of rising CO2 levels.  

What is the Goal?

Next was a discussion on the CO2 goals that have been set out, focusing on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. One hundred and eighty countries made pledges, and here is considerable visibility as to how major nations, including the US, may reach the interim goals for 2025. (For the US, this means a 24 – 26% reduction in carbon emissions, compared to the level of 2005.) However, the lack of standardization among pledges has created a patchwork of global targets, ultimately creating challenges in comparing goals, collecting data, and linking carbon markets. Furthermore, there is great uncertainty as to a pathway to achieve the goal of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 – a goal which participants set as necessary limit warming to 2 degrees.

Current Initiatives, Markets and Impacts

This panel identified and evaluated existing technologies as well as state and regional level market structures that could contribute to a zero-carbon energy future.  Strategies included (i) expanding the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an emissions trading scheme that covers power plants, among nine different states in the northeast, (ii) renewable portfolio standards, and (iii) the deployment of tax credits and increased research and development funding to support clean energy and carbon reduction technologies.  The role of nuclear energy in meeting clean energy goals was also discussed, with one speaker emphasizing the risk to the current fleet of nuclear reactors arising from low wholesale electricity prices, driven both by inexpensive natural gas and the subsidies to renewable generation.

Pathways to the Future – Sources and Technologies

The second panel discussed pathways that could lead us to reaching the long term goal set in Paris.  The focus was on different technological solutions (and combinations of solutions) such as renewables, zero carbon power plants, coal to natural gas conversions, and how far they can take us to the goal individually as well as in combination.  Speakers noted the dramatic changes required in sources of energy generation, including how to respond to potential premature retirement of power generation infrastructure that is projected to occur in the next 20 years was touched upon.  The panelists also discussed the implications of increasingly affordable solar and wind energy, and the potential for advanced nuclear technologies to provide a continuing source of zero carbon baseload power.. From the demand perspective, increased electrification, particularly during peak periods, will require the use of smart inverters and energy storage options to address imbalances in the grid.

Dr. William Hogan, Chair the Electricity Policy Group at Harvard University, delivered the keynote address. Dr. Hogan stressed that renewable energy technologies are currently not adequate to sufficiently de-carbonize the grid, Dr. Hogan questioned the value of subsidies to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy; but strongly endorsed greatly expanded research and development funding to find new and improved technologies which could help achieve de-carbonization goals.    Dr. Hogan also unpacked different assumptions and projections of green energy growth put forward by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and other leading academics.

What Policies Should We Have and Can We Afford them?

The concluding panel debated the merits and shortcomings of carbon taxes versus cap-and-trade to reduce carbon emissions domestically.  A carbon tax offers a familiar, transparent policy mechanism, and could eliminate redundant policies that aim to approximate the social cost of carbon.   A cap and trade has historically been successful in the context of acid rain, and has the virtue of setting a goal in the context of what society actually wants to achieve – a reduction in carbon – but also has greater administrative complexity. The panelists also discussed the features, strengths and importance of the newly released Clean Power Plan (CPP), as well as the importance of infrastructure design, particularly in emerging economies, in meeting carbon reduction goals.

Dr. Karen Wayland, Deputy Director for State and Local Cooperation in the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis at the Department of Energy (DOE), closed the conference with a discussion on how the United States might meet its emissions reduction goals. Dr. Wayland argued that a key element of any emissions reduction strategy will be the deployment of carbon capture technologies. She also raised questions that the DOE is currently grappling with, including how to operate flexible grid operations, grow biofuels more effectively, and leverage public private agreements to drive clean energy growth.

The conference was described as a success from participants and panelists alike, and offered an invaluable opportunity to exchange ideas and build knowledge sharing networks. More than twenty NCAC members were involve in planning, organizing and bring the conference to a reality.  This team effort demonstrates, in part, what makes the NCAC the great organization it is.  Architect Juliette Searight commented that she was, “impressed with the all-star cast of speakers and the high level of engagement on the part of the audience.” Pat McMurray, communications consultant, summarized: “It is rare in today’s contentious political environment to find a forum like this one, where these important topics were discussed in an open, respectful and constructive way.”

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* In keeping with Chatham House Rules, the topics addressed at the conference are outlined in this article, but without reference to either individual panelists or their remarks.