Cleaner Air That Takes Us Back to the Future

An unexpected upside of these trying times is that Americans across the country have had the chance to enjoy dramatic improvements in air quality, with urban smog and regional haze at the lowest levels in modern history. Clearer skies can of course be traced to the reduced motor vehicle use and industrial activity associated with the need to shelter in place over the last few months. However, as scientists have recently reported, emissions are increasing as lockdowns are relaxed. So it may be natural to assume that cleaner air can only be achieved through a dramatic decline in economic activity – as if good air quality is a reminder of pre-industrial times that can only be replicated at a crippling economic cost. The truth is much more encouraging.

We can return to pristine skies with a booming economy. This is no utopian dream, but a realistic future achieved by accelerating the ongoing transition to pollution-free renewable power and electric vehicles.

Progress toward this future is already official policy in 29 states with renewable energy standards that call for an increasing share of electricity generation by pollution-free sources like wind and solar energy. And a growing list of states have taken the effort to the next level, committing to an electricity grid powered entirely by renewable energy or carbon-free electricity generation. States committed to making this vision a reality include New York, California, New Mexico, Virginia, Hawaii, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Nevada, Wisconsin and Washington.

This transition does not come with a big price tag. In most of the country, wind and solar energy are now fully cost-competitive with fossil-fuel generation from natural gas, and far cheaper than carbon-intensive power from coal. And renewable power continues to get cheaper by the day. Wind power today costs 70 percent less than a decade ago, while solar power costs have decreased 90 percent over the same period. And unlike fossil fuels, renewable power costs are fully predictable for decades to come and are impervious to the gyrations and price spikes of global energy markets.

The rewards from a transition to pollution-free power are immense – extending beyond the health benefits and aesthetic advantages of cleaner skies to the preservation of a habitable climate. If scientists are to be believed, and current circumstances provide a resounding affirmation that they should, we’ll need to quickly turn our attention to the even more serious challenge posed by the looming climate crisis once we are through the pandemic.

Scientists warn that limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is critical to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and achieving this objective is going to require dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, while the electricity sector is only responsible for 27 percent of U.S. emissions, it can play an outsized role in responding to the climate challenge. We can go a long way toward achieving national GHG emissions reduction targets by decarbonizing the electricity sector and electrifying our motor vehicle fleet and other segments of the economy that now rely on fossil fuels.

Readers might be surprised to learn that the biggest challenge to getting there is our nation’s antiquated electrical transmission grid. Once a global model, our transmission system is outdated and Balkanized, and it fails to adequately deploy advanced grid technologies that are now readily available, including energy storage.

We need a fully planned and integrated national grid, an advanced Macro Grid, that uses modern technology to efficiently move electricity across the nation, from regions where clean energy is produced to the nation’s homes and businesses. Any serious infrastructure effort from Congress should include major investment toward this end, which is as central to prosperity as our roads and our water systems. An advanced Macro Grid will more easily integrate higher levels of renewable power, and it will be critical to help us compete with Asian and European countries that are already building high-voltage long distance lines deploying 21st century grid technologies.

Investment in a Macro Grid will also more than pay for itself. According to recent studies, increased transmission development at the “seams” between regions could save consumers up to $47 billion annually and return more than $2.50 for every dollar invested. Such an advanced grid will make it easier for states with pioneering clean energy goals to meet their objectives, and for the nation as a whole to follow their lead.

With that vision in mind, today’s cleaner skies may be not so much a reminder of earlier times as a harbinger of the better future we can leave for our children and theirs.

Gregory Wetstone is president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a national nonprofit that unites finance, policy and technology to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy economy.

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