The path to 100% renewables with Diane Moss
“A commitment to 100% renewable energy does not require belief in climate change.”
Diane Moss is the Founder and Director of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute and an independent energy strategies consultant. She is also Founder and Owner of dima Communications & Strategic Partnerships, a firm focused primarily on sustainability, and has served as a consultant to a broad range of entities, including non-profits, cleantech companies, and utilities.
The Beam: Hello Diane Moss. Where does your commitment to renewable energy come from? What is your personal story?
Diane Moss: Every late afternoon as a little kid growing up in Los Angeles, I’d get a headache and not feel like playing outside because of the smog from the rush hour traffic. I was told this was normal, but when I started living in other states and countries, I learned it wasn’t normal, but rather an unhealthy situation caused by — and therefore can only be solved by — humans and how we get our energy.
I also got to spend much of my childhood at the Pacific Ocean, and my family was deeply and politically committed to preserving the coast. Throughout my life, I witnessed and participated in several campaigns — and spearheaded one — to stop big fossil fuel and nuclear power developments off the California coast. Along the way, I learned that while trying to stop such projects may be a good idea, equally if not more important is replacing the need for them with better technologies with fewer pitfalls for health, safety, long-term economic security, and the environment.
Much of my first substantive education on how to upgrade to better, cleaner energy technologies came from spending time in Germany. My husband and his family, whom I started to get to know during my adolescence, are from the southwestern region, one of the first where the German renewable energy revolution began. My husband had been involved in this movement since his youth and was one of the pioneers of media and marketing in the field, which afforded me access to a wealth of history and informed sources. By the early 2000s, the landscape in his home state was already filled with solar panels and windmills, intriguingly far more so than my much sunnier and famously more politically progressive home state of California. He liked to remind me that 20 years earlier, the Germans were looking to California for inspiration, with its first big wind and solar farms. Now much of the world, including I, were looking to Germany.
My husband’s longtime mentor was a lead architect of Germany’s renewable energy revolution, the late parliamentarian Hermann Scheer, who in turn introduced me to his closest colleague in California, Angelina Galiteva, a champion of renewable energy with professional roots in the utility sector. Angelina, my husband and I saw eye to eye and agreed with Hermann Scheer’s advice that a critical missing piece in the international conversation about renewable energy was raising the debate to focus on 100% renewable targets, that transitioning to renewables was inevitable, and that dwelling on lesser goals was risking inefficiencies and a slowed pace to tackle many world crises. This led Angelina and I to found the Renewables 100 Policy Institute in 2007, with Hermann Scheer as our intellectual founding guide and my husband as our support on media and outreach.
In the meantime, I also worked as Environmental Deputy to United States Representative Jane Harman, one of Congress’ environmental and clean energy champions, which exposed me to navigating the policy and politics landscape back home in the US and California.
These were the roots of what led me to recognize the renewable energy transition is a central battles of our time and that began to introduce me to some opportunities for engagement.
The Go 100% Renewable Energy Project provides a range of educational tools and aims to build momentum by showing how 100% renewable energy targets and solutions are already underway around the world. How did this project begin? What is the purpose of it?
When the Renewables 100 Policy Institute was founded in 2007, most people we came across outside of a few pockets in Western Europe, even professional environmentalists, were either skeptical of the need or potential for 100% renewable energy, or sympathetic but private about it because they feared that openly admitting their sympathies was politically dangerous. We, however, remained fully committed because we were confident that 100% renewable energy was necessary, inevitable, and urgent for everyone to rally around. We also knew for a fact that 100% renewable energy targets were already being set, met, and even surpassed in cities, regions, and countries around the world, and since seeing had been believing for all of us, we thought that allowing the general public to have a similar experience through the power of the internet would be an effective tool. We also thought that momentum would build in the global movement toward 100% renewable energy, if people felt safety in numbers. These ideas were the seeds of the Go 100% Renewable Energy project (www.go100percent.org).
The heart of the project is the first comprehensive, global interactive map of 100% renewable energy projects that describes them with a summary of facts and audio-visuals. Other learning tools include an original video series of expert interviews, a library of studies and books, and a social media arm that helps to expand outreach and build community.
The project has inspired many sister campaigns around the globe and has reached more than 5 million viewers since its launch with the message that 100% renewable energy is not just a fantasy someday, but a reality happening today all over the world.
We are fundraising to take what has been a volunteer effort to the next level and hope to soon be able to offer more functions, services, and updates.
On this first comprehensive interactive map of 100% renewable energy projects around the world, you have already mapped countries, regions and states, as well as cities and towns representing more than 62 million people who have set, reached, or surpassed official 100% renewable targets in at least one sector (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling). What is the main motivation for people, states, or cities to go 100% renewable?
There is no one formula fits all. But some common motivations are wanting to mitigate climate change, save money spent on imported fuels, strengthen local control over energy choices and sourcing, create good local jobs and industries, and build pride in being a global leader.
One of your programs is to educate leaders around the world about how to achieve 100% renewables. Are you also trying to reach leaders who are climate skeptics? What’s your approach with them?
A commitment to 100% renewable energy does not require belief in climate change. Often it simply makes good business sense because renewables have become cheaper than conventional energy sources, stabilize energy prices, and can create jobs that will last into the future. It also helps leaders address concerns about the impact of dirty fuels on air or water pollution in their regions. Many communities also desire the greater control afforded by distributed renewable energy over energy choices.
The first “energy rebels” in Germany who bought back the grid from the regional utility in order to provide renewable electricity, and later bio-based gas and heat, to their communities, and who inspired a national and ultimately international seachange, were not thinking about climate change. Their motivation was the damage from the Chernobyl catastrophe to their farming businesses and natural environment and a desire to have autonomy over their energy procurement.
In many rural communities in developing regions, the primary concern is access to reliable energy, often for the first time, and avoiding the high costs of fossil fuels and the hazards of burning wood. In these areas, it can take decades or longer for the government and energy suppliers to bring a power grid, and more often than not, energy where it is available is dirty and expensive. Renewable technology like solar panels, by contrast, can bring electricity right away, is easily scalable, and creates entrepreneurial opportunities to sell electricity, to install or distribute equipment, or to train others on how to install.
In other words, 100% renewable energy is a critical solution to many types of problems, and not every community’s concerns are the same.
What is the usual “path” that — for instance a city — needs to take in order to shift to 100% renewables?
There is no one size fits all solution, although most start with a combination of a target with milestones and a plan.
When starting any major journey, it is usually most efficient to have the final destination in mind. Therefore, the recommended first step is typically to set a concrete end goal of 100% renewable energy in at least one energy sector, e.g. electricity, heating and cooling or transportation. Milestones need to be set along the way to ensure staying on course and ongoing support by demonstrating success.
That simple task of establishing a goal may raise questions, such as:
- What does 100% renewable really mean?
An often used definition of 100% renewable energy is procuring or producing over the course of the year the equivalent of annual energy demand with renewable sources, such as solar, wind, biomass and biogas from waste, tidal energy, and some hydropower that is not limited by environmental factors like climate change.
- Do voluntary renewable energy certificates count?
Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), which sometimes go by other names, are essentially credits that renewable generators can sell, for example, in some US states and European countries, that symbolize the environmental attributes of 1 megawatt hour of renewable power generation. In the US states with Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), utilities have to buy RECs to prove they are meeting their quotas. There are also voluntary REC purchases, which some authorities like the US Environmental Protection Agency recognize as a tool that institutions and businesses can use to claim they are buying renewable power of up to 100%.
Proponents of voluntary RECs like that this renewable “currency” can offer a flexible, officially recognized, and relatively low cost mechanism for cities and businesses to pursue commitments to renewable power targets. Also renewable power generators that are large enough to generate a megawatt hour can sell the RECs to these entities to make a little extra money.
The bad news is, first of all, the amount of that money that renewable power generators can make is tiny. Another point against RECs for local governments is that unless the renewable power projects associated with the RECs purchased are within the community, which often they are not, the jobs and taxes collected by the renewable energy projects don’t stay within the community.
The bottom line is that depending on RECs to meet 100% renewable targets is not best practice. It can, though, be a step in the right direction, but only if there are no other economically viable options, and if there is a solid plan to adopt best practices going forward that increase renewable capacity on the grid.
- What sector is best to start with?
Electricity is the most common sector to start with for 100% renewable energy goals because technology markets related to renewable power are the most mature, and the way we use energy is trending toward greater emphasis on renewable electricity as a source. That said, many communities are also including heating/cooling, other natural gas end uses, and transportation in their 100% renewable energy ambitions.
Because sectors will increasingly overlap and coordinate in new ways in the energy system of the future, a holistic view is recommended. For example, transportation will intersect with the electricity and gas sectors with electric, hydrogen and biogas vehicles. Electricity and heat will overlap with heat pumps for space and water heating powered by renewables, combined heat and power, and other technologies. The waste sector could increasingly become a source of biogas for the energy sector, uses like heating and cooking, and transportation.
In other words, even if a sector like electricity is chosen as a focus to begin, the transition to renewable energy is complex and should keep a cross-sectorial approach in view.
- By when should 100% renewable energy goals be set for?
The simple answer is that virtually no goals identified so far exceed the target date 2050. This stems at least in part from long standing scientific reports that warn that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to avoid some of the most drastic impacts of climate change.
Many cities and regions, however aim to reach their targets far before then — or already have. Even large cities like San Diego and San Francisco in California or Munich in Germany aim to achieve 100% renewable electricity within the next 15 years, while Sydney, Australia plans to get to 100% renewable electricity, heating and cooling by 2030.
Looking deeper, the timeline will necessarily vary depending on several factors that are specific to any given region, such as the community’s energy demand, available space to locally install renewable energy technologies, available renewable resources like sun, water, wind, and waste, and available policy, regulatory, and financing support.
Once an official target is in place, the recommended second step in adopting successful 100% renewable energy programs is to create a plan. Leaders who have actually reached 100% renewable targets tend to emphasize that this plan doesn’t have to have every answer. It doesn’t have to be funded right away. But certain ingredients are wise to include. The top five are:
- Focus on challenges and realistic solutions, but not to the point of analysis paralysis.
- Accurately assess your baseline demand, resources, and accomplishments so far.
- Clarify and coordinate with existing and potential regulatory and policy frameworks, identifying a potential pathway to clearing roadblocks as possible.
- Make sure to reflect the community’s values by including a diverse range of stakeholder input.
- Give a clear sense of direction to those implementing the plan and be sure to include then in the plan design process.
What are the main challenges that cities or states will meet along the way to setting and achieving 100% renewable energy targets?
Once the work of committing to a target and establishing a well-researched plan in place, challenges that local and state governments might meet include:
- Encountering policies outside their jurisdiction that inhibit their ability to progress. For example, a city might encounter state policies that limit their energy procurement choices.
- Utilities in some regions create roadblocks, such as high fees or slow interconnection, that require regulatory action to remove.
- Making sure constituents have the resources to train for and take advantage of the new job opportunities the energy transition creates.
- Setting up effective governance structures.
- Slow and encumbered state regulatory processes that make it hard to establish flexible and supportive frameworks.
China’s policies sent great signs to the world lately. The country is now a global leader in renewable energy investment and it also ratified the Paris Agreement. Nonetheless, China is wasting a lot of renewables energy. About 21% of its wind energy is wasted nationally, 40% in some provinces. What is the problem in China? Is it a policy problem?
China’s wind curtailment problem is caused by both technical and market structure issues. On the technical side, China has focused on building high voltage transmission lines to carry the abundant wind power that has been installed due to government incentives, but not enough on improving the lower voltage grid network. This is leading to bottlenecks on the power grid.
China also has built an overcapacity of coal, which is inflexible in its output and, therefore, inhibits integration of variable wind generation.
On the market side, the electricity prices are set by the central government and market mechanisms are not yet in place to allow prices to fluctuate according to supply and demand in real time. There is also no penalty for curtailment.
These are solvable problems, and China is examining policies to facilitate better grid integration of their variable renewable power generation. These will need to include establishing spot and short-term markets, improvement of low voltage power grids, and reduction — with ultimately a path to phase out — coal capacity to allow for the increased flexibility necessary for a renewable grid supply. China would also benefit from focusing on a diverse set of renewable electricity sources that can participate in a flexible market, along with eventually a pathway to mass scale storage adoption to keep the grid balanced in the future when the power supply is predominantly variable renewables.
As Craig Morris told us (The Beam#2), governments can’t just copy each other’s policies, as every location has specificities. But is there a universal roadmap to follow for cities or countries who wants to reach 100% renewables and what are your first pieces of advice for them to succeed in this path?
I agree with Craig that there is no one cookie cutter recipe that’s right for every community. Early adopters of 100% renewable energy targets have, at the same time, demonstrated that applying certain principles leads to greater chances of technical, economic, and environmental success. Here is a top ten list:
- Use local and regional renewable resources as efficiently as possible to better ensure local jobs and that money is not overspent on renewable energy capacity or grid upgrades where it could be more economically spent on efficiency.
- Set policies with transparency, longevity, and certainty, adaptability, and scalability to facilitate sustained investment in a rapidly changing market.
- Keep it Simple. Cut the red tape.
- Give everyone a chance to engage and profit, including prosumers.
- Lead by example to lend credibility and motivation to constituents to get and stay on board.
- Make the default answer of all relevant agencies and departments “yes” to renewable energy projects and businesses, as well as to complementary technologies like energy, efficient lighting and appliances, and zero emissions vehicles.
- Set concrete milestones and track progress.
- Educate the community, and get kids and students involved because the energy transformation must be carried and improved by future generations.
- Consult and collaborate with the frontrunners because there is a track record out there, and everyone gets smarter and more easily overcomes fear and frustration by exchanging information and collaborating.
- When doing the economic cost-benefit analysis, take into account all the important variables, including the long view of upfront capital costs amortized over time, as well as external costs of conventional energy and added value of clean energy options like local jobs, savings on energy imports, attracting tourism, and boosting community spirit.
How do you explain that local governments are leading the way on energy policy? Is it a lack of actions from the national government? A demand from the citizens on the local level?
Leadership on energy policy is evident actually at all levels of government. 100% renewable energy targets are getting set most regularly at the local level because these governments tend to be more agile and immediately engaged with citizens, as well to relevant decision making capabilities like permitting, local tax codes, and occasionally public utility services readily at their disposal.
But more often than not, these local governments are being supported by state and national policies. For example, hundreds of communities in Germany now have — or have achieved, even surpassed — 100% renewable energy goals in at least the electricity sector, and while the first among them did so decades ago without much direct support at the national government policy level, the vast majority were propelled by the federal Renewable Sources Act passed in the early 2000s, which established the feed-in tariff that incentivized rapid adoption of renewable electricity sources. This was bolstered by other federal policies, such as the nuclear phase out, which left a vacuum for new electricity technologies to come online urgently, as well as progressive policies on the state level.
Similarly, in California, where several cities and counties have or are looking into 100% renewable electricity targets, local governments are using state and federal laws to help. Examples of state laws include net metering and Community Choice Aggregation, which allows local governments in monopoly investor owned utility territories to purchase electricity on behalf of their communities and which help speed the process toward 100% renewable electricity procurement. Federal laws include the solar investment tax credit and wind production tax credits, which provide tax incentives to utility scale wind and solar development investors.
Although most apparent so far at the local level, 100% renewable energy targets are also being set at the state and national levels. For example, Denmark has a law requiring all electricity and heat demand to be supplied by renewable sources by 2030 and that all transportation energy to be covered by renewables by 2050, and Scotland aims to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2020. Several island nations have 100% renewable energy goals as well, and the state of Hawaii passed a 100% RPS requiring all utilities to procure 100% of their electricity sales from renewables by 2045.
In some countries, like China, we are hearing reports that local governments are actually impeding national renewable energy goals by not enforcing national policy.
What’s important to bear in mind is that the best chances for transitioning globally to renewables will be brought about by cooperation, planning, and collaboration across jurisdictions.
Hundreds of U.S. companies have been trying to shift to 100% renewable power procurement — including mainstream players like Staples, Kohl’s, Apple, and Google. What is the main reason for those companies to shift to renewable energy?
It’s not just US companies. IKEA and BMW are just a couple names from your side of the Atlantic that come to mind. The main reason for these corporations to adopt 100% renewable power procurement targets is that it’s good for the bottom line. The fact that it also gives them environmental leadership credibility is also a plus.
Do you think that existing policies in Europe are sufficient to remain a serious player in the markets of the future and to seriously pursue the greenhouse gas reduction targets of the Paris Agreement?
The EU target of 27% renewable energy by 2030 set at the Paris climate negotiations last year, along with more aggressive climate and energy goals among some individual countries, is a signal that Europe will continue to be a leader in the transition to renewables. That said, there are also issues that must be addressed to boost investment and prevent progress from being hampered. One is the price of carbon, which has been allowed to be too low for too long, causing burning coal to remain too cheap. Others include defining governance structures with respect to the 2030 27% renewable target, filling in more details on how to advance the 2030 27% efficiency target also set in Paris in 2015, and deepening regional and international energy market integration and grid cooperation.
How optimistic are you about the future? What’s your expectation for renewables in 10 to 20 years from now?
I am an optimistic realist. There are vast opportunities for a renewable future materialize in the decades ahead, yet also a need for vastly increased investment and adjusted policies and regulations.
When looking ahead to the next decade or two, it’s good to remember that there is already momentum that many would have not been able to imagine 10 to 20 years ago. New renewable energy now is outpacing conventional energy in installation and jobs all over the world. When Renewables 100 first started, we were at the bleeding edge, but now 100% renewable energy is now part of the mainstream vernacular, and targets are being called for and set on an increasingly mass scale. I expect that in the next couple decades, this momentum will only increase, as technology prices continue to drop for renewable energy and complementary technologies like storage, as climate agreements go into effect, and as 100% renewable targets continue to become the norm.
More specifically, based on trends we’re observing, we can also expect that:
- Renewable electricity will progress toward becoming the source of a large share, if not most, energy supply, not just for traditional power uses like keeping the lights on, but also for new cross-sectorial ones like heat pumps for space and water heating and transportation by electric vehicles and vehicles running on hydrogen made from surplus renewable electricity. This renewable hydrogen and methanated renewable hydrogen can also be stored in and used to decarbonize the existing gas grid, as well as to supply mass scale seasonal storage.
- Thermal energy from the sun and earth will have niche roles to play in heating and cooling, for example, for some industrial process heating for which electricity is too expensive and in regions with high geothermal resources.
- Energy from organic waste will be part of the solution to reducing methane emissions and cleaning up air pollution from sources like heavy duty vehicles.
- Regional grid cooperation will also be increasingly important as penetrations of renewable electricity reach high levels, and storage technologies will need to reach mass scale, especially as regions transition past 60–70% renewable electricity toward 100%.
- We will also need new market mechanisms, new horizontally and vertically integrated business models, and financing structures to enable the changing technology landscape.
- Complimentary clean energy technologies will be increasingly adopted, some of which we already know about like electric vehicles and efficiency lighting, and some which are yet to be introduced to us by the bright, creative innovators around the world.
- And of paramount importance, regulators and policymakers will have to learn to be ever more responsive, informed, and flexible. They will have to advance two tracks at once — incentivizing the build out of renewables and making sure the system works.
This is all an ambitious tall order that calls for efforts far surpassing the remarkable progress already underway. While renewables are rapidly increasing, they only still make up a small fraction of global supply. Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that keeping the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius — let alone the 1.5 degrees that many scientists warn is necessary — is a $12.1 trillion dollar opportunity in the electricity sector alone, which is double business as usual.
I am realistic that this is not easy, but optimistic that it’s doable and that the tough work already going on in multiple sectors around the world is laying the groundwork for exponential growth ahead.
What message would you like to send to our readers about the necessity to shift to renewable energy?
We are living through one of, if not the most significant and urgent industrial transformations in human history, and success is going to take broad engagement. This presents tremendous opportunities for people of all ages with a wide range of skills, from engineering to the arts, from building things to building relationships, from policy to chemistry, from mechanics to media, from algorithms to agriculture.
Be fearless about seizing these opportunities. Taking a lesson from several leaders in successful frontrunner cities and regions that are going 100% renewable, one way to think about this process is to look for all the reasons to be afraid and ways to stop progress until you figure out how to perfect everything. The other is to not let perfection be the enemy of the good, but instead to make the commitment, figure things out as you go, accept that there will be mistakes, make improvements as you learn, and persist for the sake of service to your community and future generations. Be the second kind of thinker. It’s not only what the world needs, but it’s also a lot more fun.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou