Can We Get to Zero Carbon? Panelists Weigh In

The coal industry has undeniable impacts on our communities but also on our global climate. It’s not alone.

The coal industry has undeniable impacts on our communities but also on our global climate. It’s not alone.

On January 29, StateImpact Pennsylvania and WESA sponsored an event at the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh during which three panelists - Paulina Jaramillo, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University; Ivonne Pena, an energy analyst working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and Greg Reed, a professor of electric power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School - discussed the possibility of achieving zero carbon emissions.

Part of the panel’s discussion focused on differentiating between carbon emitted for electricity versus for energy systems such as heating homes and transportation. The panel referenced the decarbonization of electricity as “low-hanging fruit.” Currently, technology exists such that renewable energy sources like wind or solar could be responsible for turning lights on throughout the country, although getting that electricity to homes through the grid would require investments and major updates. However, we don’t have ways to operate airplanes, for example, on carbon-free energy sources. The panel stressed that new technologies would be needed to address all the needs of our energy systems.

This, from a policy perspective, creates two ideas to consider in moving forward. First, our current policies are often not written in a way that would allow for advancements in and uses of new technology. Batteries, for example, are not always included in policies aimed at bringing renewable energy sources into homes, despite the fact that batteries are required in most parts of the country to keep a consistent, reliable flow of electricity. Additionally, current policies aimed at going zero carbon almost always are tied to technology as opposed to goals, meaning that wind and solar are prioritized over other forms of carbon-free power generation that could work better. The panelists also stressed that carbon capture and sequestration technologies must be developed, not to offset use of high-carbon sources like coal, but to clean the existing carbon from the air: most climate reports indicate that not only do we need to go to zero on carbon emissions, we need to go negative.

As a CCJ staff member, it was difficult to attend this event without the opportunity to talk directly to these experts. When asked a question about the climate impact of methane emissions from the natural gas industry, one panelist basically said that “in no way is natural gas worse than coal.” However, because of the way industry is required (or not required, more accurately) to report their total methane emissions, we can’t know their true cost to our climate. There are far more regulations on the coal industry, and they have stricter reporting requirements. This panel, because it was focused solely on the climate perspective, ignored other impacts that the oil and gas industry has on communities: water quality, air pollution, and nuisance concerns were not addressed. Their claims that natural gas has a place in our energy and electricity systems moving forward because it can support a reliable system isn’t an unreasonable thought, but any idea that it must remain a part of these systems flies in the face of the climate and justice crises this industry helps perpetuate. And finally, there was a lot of focus on Pittsburgh being the innovator in natural gas and energy industries of all kinds but a failure to recognize the sacrifices made by workers and low income communities along the way. It is detrimental to speak so positively of the gas well transition as a positive step in renewable energy for communities hit by the gas industry; especially during a time at which the gas is being extracted for plastic production NOT energy.