Over the last year, the Great Plains Institute (GPI) celebrated our 20th anniversary as an organization dedicated to transforming the energy system to benefit the economy and environment. As GPI staff, partners, and supporters reflect on the progress we’ve made together and look ahead to future opportunities for even greater impact in 2019 and beyond, we’re sharing a Q&A series we’ve created with our CEO and program leadership team.
This Q&A is with Brendan Jordan, GPI’s Vice President of Transportation and Fuels.
What do you consider to be the most significant transformation in our energy system over the last 20 years in your area of work?
I’ve been at GPI since 2003 and one of the major changes that has happened in the region [the Midwest] where we began our work is the way that wind power really took off. It’s been incredible to see the changes over time—both the shift in perceptions about the potential of wind as a major energy resource (and renewables more broadly) and the actual scale up of projects and infrastructure.
In the early days when we were doing the Powering the Plains project, less than 1 percent of the region’s electricity system was powered by wind. There were debates at the time about how much wind the grid could really accommodate. And as the technology matured and as infrastructure has been built out—and through a lot of engagement and collaboration involving a variety of stakeholders—there has a been a sea change in what was thought possible.
A lot of factors led to this shift. We had a scale up of wind manufacturing which helped drive costs down. From a policy perspective, we used a range of tools to boost deployment: the federal production tax credit, support of transmission buildout, state mandates, and wholesale market rules at the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). There was a wide-spread mobilization of capital and many institutions worked together to transform the view of what was possible and invested in making it a reality. During 2018 in the MISO North Region, we had more than 25 percent of generation coming from wind, with a maximum hourly supply of 65 percent–that was achieved in about 15 years.
Infrastructure has also played a huge role. In the Midwest, GPI staffed a major energy initiative of the Midwestern Governors Association and one of the major outcomes was a set of renewable electricity goals for the region, starting with 15 percent by 2015 and up to 30 percent by 2030. MISO was able to incorporate those goals into their transmission planning process in combination with various state laws and policies, which helped them plan the foundational multi-value project transmission build out. MISO projected that the multi-value projects will create “$12.1 to $52.6 billion in net benefits over the next 20 to 40 years.” And we’ll need to continue investing in transmission to achieve higher levels of wind deployment.
While there was an economic transformation in the cost of electricity from wind, there was also a political and institutional transformation that was integral to achieving this shift. And today, there is widespread support for renewables and for decarbonizing the system—you’re seeing major investments in renewables and nation-leading carbon reduction goals from Midwestern utilities along with corporations procuring more and more renewables.
Now we’re on the cusp of a similar transformation with solar, batteries, electric vehicles, and carbon capture.
The US has experienced major shifts—politically, economically, culturally—over the last 20 years and, throughout, GPI has continued to increase its impact. What has made our approach effective over the years?
We are a convener and facilitator—and we recognize that we’re not an interest group in our own right. We value partnering and collaborating with others to make an impact, and that can generate a unique, collective political power for the group of interests we’re bringing together. For that to work, you can’t start with the answer—the participants must generate the solutions together. The strategies and solutions that come out of that kind of process are stronger because they’re broadly supported.
Another important aspect of this approach is, over the years, we’ve learned that it’s not enough to convene and achieve consensus—you have to advocate on behalf of and with the group you’re convening. Some examples of how this strategy has been successful include the federal passage of the 45Q tax credit for carbon capture, Drive Electric Minnesota’s policy and regulatory agenda, and the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota’s advocacy for the Bioincentive program. These efforts are all possible because of broad collaboration across leading institutions and sectors.
We’ve also developed a variety of powerful analytical capabilities, such as economic modeling tools, geospatial analyses, lifecycle assessment of emissions, work on wholesale markets, etc. —all in service of helping leaders make informed decisions. Our analysis is very applied and we’re using our research and analysis to support decision making.
From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge we face in transforming the energy system that is also surmountable?
The further we move along the decarbonization curve, the more challenging it will get. So, you need to look at the full portfolio of what it will take to get you there in a cost-effective manner and in a meaningful timeframe. In the Midcontinent region, we’ve shown through analysis and modeling that there are various pathways to achieve 80 percent to 95 percent decarbonization of the electricity system by 2050. Transportation and industry will be harder—especially sectors like aviation and shipping, along with industrial sectors where CO2 is inherent to the process or where high temperatures are required. We’ll need a mix of zero and low-carbon resources, including technologies that can capture and remove carbon emissions.
What we’re really focused on is reducing and eliminating carbon emissions. It’s a difficult challenge and we can’t forgo technologies that can help us achieve the scale that’s actually required to decarbonize the energy system. And we need to work hard to find consensus about how to implement strategies for technologies that can be more contentious but that play a huge role in most international climate mitigation assessments—such as bioenergy and carbon capture.
The other challenge is moving quickly enough. It can take a long time for technologies to travel the learning curve and the timeline—and trajectory—for emissions reductions that we need to be on is pretty daunting. There is some unavoidable math there—you must make the investments up front to bring the costs down, cost reductions are a function of investment and time, and it will take a while. So, we’d better make investments now in the technologies that will be needed in the coming decades.
What is the role of collaboration, a core GPI value, in achieving the speed and scale necessary to transform the energy system? Has its importance evolved over time?
It’s central to our how we achieve our mission. We see a huge value in bringing people together, hearing from a wide variety of voices, and taking a collaborative approach. In a collaboration, all of the individual participants have to be better off than by standing alone. There’s a lot of different reasons why people become involved, but they all have to have the potential to benefit. By collaborating, you can create something greater, and with more impact, than going it alone. Sometimes there are various ways to attack a problem. A consensus-based approach identifies more robust strategies that enjoy broader support.
What makes you most optimistic about the future of energy?
The progress we’ve already made makes me optimistic. We have credible modeling and scenarios that show we can get to where we need to go. We know there are widespread benefits to transforming the energy system and that an energy transformation can stimulate the economy because of how much investment will be required. I firmly believe our energy system will not just be decarbonized at the end of this process—it will be better. We just need to work together and draw on all of the tools and strategies we have available to make it happen faster.