To Address Climate, Accelerate Everything.

To Address Climate, Accelerate Everything

We need every tool available and energy data could be a transformational one

By Alisa Ferguson
December 18, 2018

I’m an optimist. But recent reports about climate change sometimes test my optimism.

The latest IPCC report states that human activities have already caused between .8 and 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming. It also estimates with high confidence that we will likely reach 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052. The 2015 Paris Agreement committed to keep warming well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, while seeking to achieve an aggressive target of 1.5 degrees. However, in 2018, global carbon emissions reached a new high, with India, China, and the U.S. all posting increases. Hence, we’re seeing more headlines like “We Are in Trouble” and “A Grave Climate Warning.” Deeper dives into the math around what is needed to achieve either target make the challenge seem even more daunting.

I have worked on energy policy issues for more than 15 years. Over that time, I’ve seen energy morph from a regional issue where bipartisanship often prevailed into one stubbornly mired in polarizing narratives. Too often, politics distract us from finding areas of agreement that could help chip away at the problem—while also driving new markets and benefitting consumers.

Big, bold solutions to climate change can inspire large-scale action, and we should keep working on them. But there are also many other solutions that can make significant contributions, even if they aren’t as sexy. On-bill payment options for energy efficiency and crowdfunding for energy projects; zero-emission options for school buses and innovative financing for EV infrastructure; software that gives consumers access to energy data and more sustainable energy choices. We need to support and accelerate hundreds, maybe thousands of efforts like these too. It has become increasingly clear that if we’re going to have any success minimizing the impacts of climate change, we need to accelerate everything.

Here, I think, is some good news. A decade ago, almost all energy innovation was capital intensive and required years (if not decades) of patience from investors. But today, many of the most exciting and promising innovations are not like those of the past. They aren’t “hard tech” with a single purpose, such as power generation, alternative fuels, or energy storage. Rather they are cross-cutting tools that can be scaled quickly to many parts of the energy system simultaneously. They are the drivers that are already taking energy—like music and media before it—from a centralized, analog past into a decentralized, digital future.

Today, energy data is collected by smart meters, connected buildings, industrial equipment outfitted with sensors, household appliances, and every individual’s mobile device. For the first time, energy consumers—from large industries to small businesses and individual customers—are beginning to gain access to this energy data. And already, customers are beginning to accelerate demand for digital tools that increase transparency, competition, and choice.

While a digital energy future may be unstoppable, a positive one is not guaranteed. Technology (like energy itself) is not inherently good or bad, and digital technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things are no different.

The coming year will present numerous opportunities in Washington and beyond for policymakers and other stakeholders to contemplate how energy data can help transform the energy sector and accelerate climate solutions, economic growth, and environmental justice. But to turn these opportunities into action, we need new ways of talking about energy and climate policy. The conversation can’t only be about a carbon tax. It can’t only be about fossil fuels vs. renewables. It can’t only be about tax incentives.

We need a conversation that recognizes the digital transformation already taking place in the energy system and figures out the best ways to accelerate it. This conversation must include both the left and the right—and everyone in between. It should include experts who know the issues deeply, and also the individuals and communities who will be most impacted.

Whether as part of a Green New Deal or FERC action on resilience, whether in wholesale electricity markets or state PUCs—energy data can and should play a role in steering energy and climate policy to a wide variety of solutions that can achieve real change, as fast as possible.

Trying something new is never easy. But the consequences of not doing so have never felt more real. What are we waiting for?

 

Alisa Ferguson is a Senior Advisor with EC-MAP based on the west coast. She previously worked at the House Science and Technology Committee and led the cleantech practice at a Washington-based consulting firm.