In this episode
Colleen talks to Bridget and Paula about:
- the modeling and analysis that shows how states can reach 100% renewable energy by 2035
- what policies are needed to reach an equitable transition
- what a just and sustainable future could look like
Timing and cues
Interview part 1 (2:12-14:32)
Interview part 2 (15:21-27:51)
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: I often daydream about a future where all of our energy is sustainably sourced. I see windmills on land and off-shore, I see solar panels and reliable power grids. The air is cleaner without dirty forms of energy like coal, and there are fewer people with pollution-related health issues because of it.
This dream I have is shared by the United States Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of 26 states that have committed to the Paris Climate Agreement goals. Building and enhancing clean energy infrastructure is a core part of the work they’re doing.
These states are called “leadership states” because they’re paving the way for a cleaner future with less carbon pollution. So, staff scientists and analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists decided to focus on them to project what the dream future of 100 percent renewable energy could look like. They released an analysis that shows the potential benefits we could see from these states meeting their one hundred percent renewable energy goals by 2035. And their results—I’ll just say they’re pretty dreamy.
Part of this daydream of mine also includes everyday people being empowered to choose renewable energy for their own communities, especially those that are continually marginalized. The UCS team also wants this, which is why they partnered with several local environmental justice organizations to research and produce the report. Joining me to discuss their findings, and how best to turn these clean energy dreams into reality, are Bridget Vial, the Energy Democracy Organizer at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition… and Paula Garcia, Senior Bilingual Energy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Colleen: Bridget, Paula, welcome to the podcast.
Paula: Thank you so much for the invite, Colleen.
Bridget: Yes, thanks so much for having us. I'm excited to be here.
Colleen: You both recently worked together along with a number of other environmental justice groups on an analysis titled "On The Road to 100% Renewables." And this analysis looked at the potential for 24 leadership states to meet 100% of their electricity needs with renewable electricity by 2035. So, Paula, let me start with you. What did you set out to do with the analysis and what were the priorities?
Paula: Basically what we wanted to do was to analyze how leadership states can address climate change by reducing heat-trapping emissions in the electricity sector, and to go on a step further and understand the impact of our energy choices making sure that we were centering equity in this energy transition throughout. So, the study assesses the implication of states meeting 100% of the electricity needs with renewable energy by 2035. And this is through a strengthened Renewable Electricity Standard.
Colleen: Can you tell us what Renewable Electricity Standards are?
Paula: Sure. Renewable Electricity Standards are also known as Renewable Portfolio Standards. And basically, Renewable Energy Standard is a state mandate requiring that retail electricity suppliers provide a certain percentage of their electricity coming from renewables.
Colleen: So in the absence of a federal renewable energy standard, or R-E-S for short, each state decides it's own percentage?
Paula: Exactly. Absolutely.
Colleen: So, Paula, what states did you look at, and why those particular states?
Paula: We focused on the states that are members of the UnU.S.Climate Alliance. the U.S. Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of governors that have committed to advance the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and one way to ensure that we are advancing those commitments is by reducing CO2 emissions, or heat-trapping emissions. And the electricity sector has a key role to play in terms of how to reduce emissions, especially as we think of electrification, and that's like moving the transportation sector and buildings into being powered through electricity.
Colleen: And what states did you go into more detail on?
Paula: In addition to looking at the 24 states, we also went into more detail for Michigan, Minnesota, and Massachusetts in terms of what a transition to 100% renewable to cover the electricity needs of these states could look like by 2035.
Colleen: And how did you design the analysis? What tools did you use?
Paula: So we used the Regional Energy Deployment System, which is an electricity model from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and we also worked with Greenlink Analytics, which is an energy research organization. And basically, what we wanted to do was to assess how a renewable electricity standard most directly affect people's lives in terms of public health, in terms of jobs, in terms of energy bills.
Colleen: So, what were the most significant findings?
Paula: I will say that there are three key pieces to the equation in terms of the results from our analysis. The first one is that we found that Climate Alliance states can meet 100% of their electricity needs with renewable energy by 2035. And what's really key here is that what we also made sure to include in this analysis was integrating increasing levels of electrification for the transportation and heating sector. So, in our policy scenario that we call the 100% RES, coal generation essentially disappear by the year 2040 in the U.S. Climate Alliance states, and from 2020 through 2040, what we see is that solar generation in these states grows nearly ninefold, and wind generation more than sevenfold. The important piece in terms of the technical feasibility is that electricity generation in this U.S. Climate Alliance states is 73% renewable by the year 2035.
And the reason that it's not 100% renewable is because we are targeting consumption and not generation. And even though all the U.S. Climate Alliance states are going to be meeting all of their own electricity needs with renewables as it's required by the Renewable Electricity Standard, our modeling is allowing plants fueled by coal, or gas, or nuclear to continue operating. And what happens here is that this is pretty much how the electricity system works right now in the United States, because there is interconnection across many states, and power is shared across the state lines.
So, let's say that that's one key component, 100% is technically feasible. The big component is that 100% renewable energy is absolutely near because of the benefits that it can bring. A transition to 100% renewable energy is much more than just technology, even though I love solar, I love offshore wind, for instance, a transition to renewable energy yields strong benefits in terms of health, in terms of climate, in terms of our economies, in terms of energy affordability. So, for instance, in terms of health, our policy case, which is covering 100% of the electricity needs of these states with renewable energy, helps to reuse the amount of harmful air pollution from power plants much more than just keeping in place the policies and the plants that we have currently in place. for instance, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants in the U.S. Climate Alliance states fall 88% and 77% respectively by 2040, if we were to do nothing, if we were to not take action, these emissions would be 27% and 80% lower just if we were doing nothing. So, you see a comparison just in sulfur dioxide with our policy case we're reducing 80%, those harmful emissions.
Colleen: Tell me about some of the health and other benefits that you were able to quantify with the analysis.
Paula: Sure. So these and other air pollutants that are being reduced as a result of this transition is going to help us to reduce between 6,000 and 13,000 fuel premature deaths, having more than 140,000 fuel cases of asthma, exacerbation, and in addition, between 2022 and 2040 we could be reducing by 700,000 the work days that are being lost due to illness. So, that itself, in terms of health benefits we could be seeing that the value could be equivalent to avoiding $280 billion over these two decades.
Colleen: And how will the shift to renewables impact jobs?”
Paula: When we're thinking about all this renewable energy that we will need to build over the next years, just for Michigan, this transition to 100% renewable energy to cover the electricity needs of the people in the state could create more than 100,000 additional jobs in the construction, and or installation of new power capacity, especially for [inaudible] we believe that, that will go to wind and solar between 2022 and 2040.
Colleen: And of course there’s the role renewables will play in reining in climate change. So, what reductions in emissions will we see?”
Paula: In our policy case, if we were to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035, as we are also increasing electrification of transportation and buildings, we see that there is a reduction in CO2 emissions of 58% below 2020 levels by 2040, if we were to not take action whatsoever, that reduction will be only 12%.We are dealing with a climate crisis and health crisis and a pandemic. So, this is the moment to be using the tools that we have at our reach and renewable energy is a key component that we should be using in a really transformative way right now.
Colleen: Bridget, I want to bring you in here. You work with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. Can you tell us about your organization and the work that you do there?
Bridget: Yes. Thank you. And thanks so much for having me on today, again. So, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition is a bit of a mouthful, so you might hear me say MEJC. MEJC is a membership-based organization, environmental justice, climate justice organization. We are working toward a vision of healthy and thriving neighborhoods all over Michigan, and particularly in environmental justice communities, Black, Brown, low-income communities. The communities that have been most impacted by inadequate policies and intentionally extractive policies. My colleagues and I work at the local state and national levels, my work is focused on energy democracy and at some local level stuff, but a lot of the state-level policy. I came into the energy work, working on opposing our local utility DTE Energy's integrated resource plan, which many listeners might be familiar with on this podcast.
But starting in 2016 in Michigan, all of our investor-owned utilities have to file their plans for producing energy to meet their customers' needs 15 years in advance, and every five years they have to submit a new plan. And so, I came in when we were opposing their current plan and arguing that we should all have healthy and affordable, and renewable energy, and that we should be moving in that direction.
Colleen: And how is your utility’s reliance on fossil fuels affecting people in your community?
Currently, as I see it in Detroit, there are so many different impacts economically, talking about health, talking about climate, and it's a lived experience that people are familiar with every day where I work.
So, we have a situation where the utility that's providing our power is not only polluting and contributing to global warming, climate change, they're also shutting off our neighbor down the street who can't pay the bill, or who can't replace their furnace and so is just heating their home with space heaters and electricity bill is like $600 a month. They are making sick us with air pollution, and a lot of parts of Detroit and Downriver communities here in Michigan, the annual health costs exacted just by DTE Energy is equivalent to the annual cost of influenza. and they're also interfering with our democracy in order to keep getting away with it. So, they're donating to the campaigns of 140 out of 146, current lawmakers in Michigan, they've got dark money parks that are shutting down local initiatives of people who are trying to get more access to recreation, more rights to housing, that kind of stuff. So, that's the place from which we come to, the energy democracy work is really about connecting a lot of those integrated impacts of the energy system, climate, health, environment, economic, and democracy.
Add question: “Bridget, I’d like to pick up on what your organization is doing to promote environmental justice and renewable energy in Michigan. Can you share an example of how folks in your community are plugging into the process and getting involved?”
Bridget: I came into a community education session in the basement of the Christ Commons Converted Church space, and they were training community members on how to give public comments at a public service commission hearing that they had actually argued for and argued should happen in the city of Detroit. And it was amazing. Like they're just turning out a lot of residents who pay their DTE bill and hate that the power goes out all the time, and actually explaining how the system works and that there's an avenue to intervene at the Michigan Public Service Commission, you know, that's like one important place. And so, we turned out 200 people to that hearing, which was a shock to the public service commissioners and drove thousands of comments in on that case. And I do think we're seeing some of that start to shift the landscape and start to shift the level to which organizations are collectively engaging with this work, and criticizing and understanding how the utility system is influencing our local politics.
Colleen: That's really inspiring and it's encouraging to hear that on a grassroots level, you can really come together and make a difference. Michigan is one of the leadership states that Paula mentioned that's in the analysis and showed that a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035 is possible. for Michigan, what are some of the key steps to get there?
Bridget: So, much of it comes down to power. A nd I mean, it's like a play on words, we're fighting for renewable power and what's standing in the way is this power imbalance, and the Environmental Justice Movement is founded on this knowledge that the extractive economy is built on a power imbalance, and if you look at the principles of environmental justice, it names things like environmental justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural, and environmental self-determination, environmental justice demands the right to participate. And so, that is the first step of what's standing in the way of really shifting and enacting a 100% renewable energy type of policy in Michigan by 2035. We need campaign finance reform, we need to make sure that elected officials know that voters really care about the influence that investor-owned utilities have on our politics.
People care. Across the state of Michigan, we want to know that our elected officials are working for us, and we don't want corporations to be pulling the strings and so we have to keep on showing up and proving that in the elections. We have to grow the imagination of our elected leaders and of our communities as well in terms of what is possible in the next 15 years. Because we know how hard things are already with basements flooding, multiple times every summer people trying to figure out how to replace their water heaters with crop fields flooding. We know how bad it is, we know it's going to get a lot worse, and so knowing that how can we expand our imagination around the political possibility to say no new gas starting tomorrow, and we're going to transition those plants out.
And we're going to invest in a mass scale and distributed energy, community solar. We're actually going to make sure that when we put billions of dollars into this transition, if it happens by 2035, if it happens by 2050, we are going to see that shift. We are going to make massive investments collectively as a society, and transitioning in our energy system, and this is the moment to make sure that that infusion of wealth and capital is rectifying past harms and is actually returning wealth to communities from whom it was stolen. So, yes, every investment that we want to make, we've just got to be moving forward policies that put those assets in the hands of communities.
Colleen: And, Paula, what were you seeing in other states? Are different states taking different steps?
Paula: Yes. Thank you, Colleen. I think that definitely different states are taking different steps. And depending on the state, then you are going to see that there are different technologies that could be included and that the timeline could be different in terms of engagement. There are places in which it's pretty much like a small group of people deciding what the legislation should include, there are other states in which is more of a participatory process with a broad representation of different key stakeholders, and I think that it's directly connected to what Bridget was just mentioning. Making sure that communities, especially those communities that will be most impacted by the energy transition are part of the conversation and have power in decision-making.
What is going to make a difference moving forward is to make sure that we have frontline communities, environmental justice communities, deeply engaged in the processes where the laws are being designed and implemented. I think that that's going to be a deal-breaker for the success of the different pieces of legislation that are being enacted in different states. So, I'm saying this because by making sure that energy justice is part of the conversation, we are going to be able to be addressing those inequities, historic inequities that we are seeing in the energy sector. If we do not have proper representation where the decisions are being made, I am not as enthusiastic about really transformational changes that benefit us all in our society.
Colleen: So what is the process for making sure that these transformational changes happen? How do we do it right?
Bridget: I mean, it is the winning question definitely. I think, again, I'm going to default back to what I said before about just how uneven the power balance is right now. And so, there's not a single point of intervention that is going to flip us into a place where people are making decisions over the power in their communities. It's a step-by-step iterative process and so right now, the very actionable things that we can do, we can intervene at the level of the Public Service Commission, we can get in more legal intervention, we can get more public hearings, we can put a ton of pressure on our elected officials, we can put pressure directly on shareholder meetings on the lawn of DTE Energy, showing up, making our voices heard that way.
So, we've got to have all of the interventions. So, it's so cool to see movements in Highland Park and in Ann Arbor to explore what it looks like to form municipal utilities and pull out of the investor-owned utility service territory. We have municipal utilities across Michigan, but, you know, this would be an effort to actually buy back our infrastructure from the utility and supply our own power there. Then through that kind of hard work and advocacy and legal battles, you can form a space where 100% of the people who sit at the table are from the community that's impacted and have real decision-making authority.
Colleen: Bridget I like the picture you’ve painted there. I do worry that the people who are most affected, low-income communities are often put in the position of being the ones that have to, after a long day of work and taking care of your family then you have to get up and fight for things that you should already have.
Bridget: Yes for sure. I mean, that is every movement that has ever fought for justice. Yes, it's the folks that are already dealing with the brunt of the injustice who are doing the work of undoing it and envisioning something new and trying to make that possible, and it is a real tension in our work. At MEJC, and I think a lot of our partners, we think about like how to rectify those processes. How can we get people paid to show up to be a part of public service commission boards? Can we like stipend people for being storytellers, for doing the emotional work, as well as taking the time to share their stories of being harmed by the system over and over again? Like, what are the ways that we can make that process better? But it's definitely a challenge.
Paula: Another piece that is very important is for those of us that are not part of a frontline community, or an environmental justice community, just to make sure that we are thinking about the distribution of benefits, and how we are addressing the harms and how we make sure that those conversations are being guided, informed by those that are being impacted, or will be impacted the most. If we are not able to address those questions about the distribution of benefits and harms with proper engagement, we are missing the mark.
Colleen: So, Paula, Bridget, I have a question now for the two of you. What would success look like to you say 10 years down the road?
Paula: Ten years from now I hope to see that in each one of the years to come, we are seeing significant progress because the trajectory, how we get to a place, is just as important as the place where we want to go. So, we want to see 100% move to renewables, but we cannot wait for five or six years thinking about how to make it happen, and then suddenly the last four years start doing that in a kind of radical fashion. And the other thing that I would like to see is that we think about the life cycle in advance so that there is a sustainable and responsible life cycle throughout from the manufacturing piece to end of life, and how we're going to be recycling and reusing the different solar farms, wind farms, batteries that we are installing. I think that those are some of the pieces that I would like to see between now and 10 years from now.
Colleen: Great. And Bridget, how about you for the communities that you work with?
Bridget: Yes. I love everything that Paula has said. Something that could happen immediately and that I want to see in 10 years is that across the state of Michigan, no matter how much money you make, who your utility provider is, where you live, you don't get shut off because you can't afford to pay your bill. So, I want to see in 10 years that all of us can come together around this energy transition together, knowing that we're going to be able to afford it no matter what happens. I want to see programs growing every year that are putting solar panels on my neighbors' homes, on the elementary school that's a block away from me, I want to see more and more microgrids, climate-resilient grids, where people can actually completely power themselves by renewable power and weather power outages that way. Community centers that can serve as hubs during power outages, because they've got their own power, and they've got microgrids.
Colleen: That sounds great. I think I want to live in this place that you've pictured. I think it's really inspiring. Bridget and Paula, I want to thank you both. This analysis is really exciting, I mean, it's a roadmap that will benefit public health, jobs, the economy, climate, and it will be done with equity at the center. And that's really exciting. So, Bridget, I want to thank you for the tireless work you do at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. And Paula as always thank you for the countless hours you spend crunching and analyzing numbers and explaining them to us, and the policies and, you know, working towards a just and equitable clean energy future. It's been a great conversation and I thank you both.
Bridget: Yes. Thanks so much for having us. It's been so great working with Paula and the UCS team on this and really appreciate the chance to be on it and talk about it.
Paula: Thank you so much for the invite, Colleen.