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 Doug Scott, GPI’s Vice President of Electricity and Efficiency.
- 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 really think there are two. One of them is the general decarbonization of the generation fleet. We’ve seen a significant drop in the amount of coal that is being used to power generation, and that’s being replaced by a combination of natural gas and renewables, primarily wind and solar. As that trend continues, you’re starting to see utilities announcing larger and larger decarbonization goals in the absence of any federal or other policy that would mandate it. They’re doing it based on cost, risk factors, and a series of things that signal decarbonization is a good pathway for them now.
The second thing is how the utility business model has changed; not so much in the last 20 years, but in the last five years. We built our electric system around large, central station power stations. The utility–owned distribution system sent power to homes and our businesses, and utilities were paid based on how much power they sold and what kind of infrastructure they built. That worked for a long time and enabled us to bring electric power to the whole country.
But lately, the “build more/sell more” power model has been changing. Demand has been flat or declining in a lot of places because of energy efficiency, smart appliances, and a whole bevy of technologies. Customers are demanding more and more input into not only what power they use and when, but where that power comes from. The load for utilities has been dropping, and so that whole business model isn’t really functioning the way that it had for a long time.
That’s leading to really significant change in the utility business, and states, utilities, and third parties are looking at that. Added to those changes, more and more people are putting solar on their homes or getting wind from a community source, and those trends are going to continue as well.
- 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?
I think it’s basically what we talk about internally as “The GPI method,” which is to assemble a lot of folks who are integral to the energy process, but who may have very different points of view and see if there are some areas of agreement that allow us to move forward on solutions, maybe even for very different reasons.
At GPI we realize that people come from very different perspectives, and we try to meet folks where they are. We serve as the honest broker that brings people together on issues, provides information, and shows the likely results of taking certain actions. Maybe they will end up taking the same actions as others we work with in the energy space, but they will often do it for vastly different reasons, and that’s okay. People don’t necessarily have to have the same desired outcome that we do. They don’t necessarily have to think about it in terms of climate change. Maybe they take action because of better economics, for what works better for their state or for their utility, and that’s okay.
I think that the whole GPI approach of meeting folks where they are serves us very well. It’s a given that political changes happen, cultural changes will come and go, economics change all the time, etc. Taking that same approach where you’re trying to understand where folks are coming from and figure out what works best for them enables you to continue making significant progress and reaching outcomes that will survive lots of different changes.
- From your perspective, what is the biggest challenge we face in transforming the energy system that is also surmountable?
The energy system is going to have some very large infrastructure needs going forward, both in terms of generation and in terms of the power grid. How we recognize and address those costs is going to be really important. For example, if more and more people are going to put their own power source on their house or in their business, making the grid responsive to that is going to be very important.
At the same time, if we’re decarbonizing and we’re getting to a point where we have a less centralized power generation system, utilities may see some stranded assets. We need to think creatively about how we’re going to take care of those particular costs and still let the system advance. There’s also a reality that there’s an aging workforce in the utility sector, and we’ll have to be purposeful about how we deal with that. Those are all fairly significant challenges coming that I think a lot of the utilities and states are working with.
They’re all surmountable, and I think that those are the kinds of issues that GPI works on and can really help with.
- 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?
I think it’s always been important, but it’s critical now. I think our method of trying to bring people together and figure out common ways to move forward is more necessary than ever right now both because the political discord calls for that approach. It’s valuable to have an organization that can work through issues on a nonpartisan basis that takes into account the fact that people will approach the issues from very different places. Sometimes those differences are geographical, not political. Sometimes they’re economic, so it’s not always a political question.
Given the forecasts of the International Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency, we know that there is a critical need to reverse the effects of climate change and that we’ve got to act now. If there’s a state in the Southwest or in the plains that is investing in wind because it benefits their state’s economics, and is not because of climate change, that shouldn’t matter to us. The impact of them decarbonizing by putting in more wind is what’s important.
We’re focused on decarbonization, lowering costs of renewables, electrifying transportation, carbon capture, doing more in terms of energy efficiency (which is generally the most economical way to try to provide power) —and all those things become even more critical now. And I think the bipartisan work we do that reaches across the country also becomes even more important right now because we’ll need everyone engaged to make an impact in a meaningful timeframe.
- What makes you most optimistic about the future of energy?
Well, actually I am optimistic. As I said, the timing is critical, and we can’t ignore what the consequences are if we don’t act. Just in the last few years, we’re starting to see some really, really hopeful signs with the costs of renewables coming down substantially along with a real focus on decarbonization. Utilities that had never talked about things like that now are setting goals of carbon reductions that they want to reach in very impressive timeframes.
In a lot of electric power work at GPI, we see the potential for technology like carbon capture for either beneficial use or for sequestration, which could really be a game changer in terms of decarbonization efforts throughout the country and the world. The fact that renewables are increasing on the system and people are actually talking about decarbonization goals is so much different than it was just a couple of years ago. Really a huge change just in the last couple of years.
Also, I am hopeful because I think when you look at nationwide surveys about what’s important to people, you see issues of climate getting more and more attention. I also get hope from the fact that there’s a whole generational shift happening with a group of new consumers who aren’t necessarily interested in having energy delivered the same way and the same kind of energy being delivered. I think they’re going to make a significant change in terms of raising issues that are going to lead to a more decarbonized energy system.
I think you’re going to see a lot more in terms of what we call beneficial electrification of the system, such as electric vehicles and trying to change over some building systems to more electric systems, which will allow for increased decarbonization as renewables become more prevalent.
Those are really hopeful signs that are all showing significant signs of progress right now. While the forecast is dire if we don’t do anything, the reality is lots of people are doing things, and that makes me hopeful.
About Doug Scott: Doug Scott joined the Great Plains Institute in early 2015 and is vice president of electricity and efficiency. Doug focuses on GPI projects related to his work as a former state official, including the Midcontinent Power Sector Collaborative, state energy and environmental regulator groups, the Carbon Capture Coalition and State Carbon Capture Work Group, and utility business model/grid modernization, including the e21 Initiative.