Designing for an energy transition

ASU professor talks about the future of transitioning from fossil fuels

solar panels

The United Nations World Meteorological Organization has recently reported that global temperatures are almost certain to be the warmest on record during the next five years.

Additionally, one of those years is likely to exceed the threshold — 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial averages — identified by the Paris Agreement to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigate worsening droughts, wildfires, storms and flooding.

The news reinforces the urgency of efforts to transition electric power generation, transportation, manufacturing and other systems from their reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sources, including solar and wind. Much of this work focuses on the development and deployment of carbon-neutral energy technology, but achieving the necessary changes also involves debates and decisions about the routes we take to adopting clean energy at individual, organizational and societal levels.

Portrait of professor

Clark Miller

ASU News discussed these broader issues with Clark Miller, director of the Center for Energy and Society within ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society. The center collaborates with community, industry and government stakeholders to help Arizona and the nation chart and navigate pathways to a successful clean energy future. 

Question: Your school references the idea of different energy futures. Could you explain what that means? Isn’t the goal simply to eliminate fossil fuels and stop the planet from overheating?

Answer: Transitioning to renewables and not burning carbon is the goal, and it’s important for everyone. But it’s estimated that we are going to spend $100 trillion dollars to achieve a global clean energy economy. So, we should spend it well because how we design our future energy system will have major consequences separate from climate. What criteria should we be applying to this transition? Right now, our sole criterion is net zero carbon. I’d like to add other criteria that assess how well future energy technologies serve human purposes. While we're optimizing for emissions, can we also optimize for social outcomes?

Let me give you an example. Many people here in metro Phoenix and across the country are putting solar panels on their rooftops. Doing so means they are supporting clean energy and saving a lot of money on electricity. But not everyone can afford to buy solar panels and enjoy those savings. So, what do we do about that? There's an obvious unfairness if we simply leave that disparity to market forces. How do we correct for market failures, and whose responsibility is it to do so? These are questions we need to ask as we design and deploy clean energy technologies.

Q: What are some of those different models when it comes to the example of residential solar panel systems?

A: They relate to the allocation of ownership. For example, there’s a model in which people own their rooftop systems. They use the electricity they generate and trade it with the grid and maybe with each other. This model represents a widely distributed solar energy future in which people can engage in the market as producers and consumers.

In another model, the solar panels are owned by big businesses that rent rooftop space from the homeowners. It’s a leasing model that is very common in Arizona. It’s a way for lower-income households to enter the solar game. But the rent is usually paid as an electricity bill credit, and the savings for the homeowner are a lot less.  Most of the financial benefits of this arrangement flow to the solar company. They are far more centralized.

Finally, there is the idea of a community solar cooperative, which is popular in Europe and a few places in the U.S. A neighborhood association gets together and buys everyone’s solar panels collectively and cheaply. Each resident then benefits from a share of ownership as well as the electricity generated and any revenue from power sold back to the grid. Even renters benefit, as well as people who can’t afford to buy a full solar system.

Note that these solar panels and systems are physically the same in every model. But they represent different financial arrangements and quite different energy futures — and human futures — if we scale any one of them versus another. It’s an example of how the design of our new electrical power systems can have significant implications for society. We explore those implications in our recent books, "The Weight of Light" and "Cities of Light."

Q: Awareness of those implications extends beyond the deployment of residential solar. What are some points to consider around the expansion of renewables at the commercial level?

A: Well, we're already seeing the early stages of concern in rural areas about large-scale solar and wind deployment. Ranchers in Arizona who have been using Bureau of Land Management parcels to graze cattle for decades are suddenly not able to renew their leases because new energy projects are taking over those sites. The same is happening to farmers in the Southeast. It’s a form of competition that is starting to drive up land rental prices and displace ranching and farming family businesses. Plus, we are very early in developing large solar projects across the country, and the pace of development is increasing quickly. So, these disruptive issues are likely to become more acute.

Q: Are there measures we can take to ease those pressures and keep expanding renewables? For example, can we employ underused urban land?

A: Yes, but the farmland model is very popular among solar energy developers. Farms are low-cost places to build projects. The land has already been disturbed and leveled. It can be purchased or rented from private landowners. All of which helps these energy projects to competitively price the electricity they sell. With that said, there are a lot of urban spaces that can be used for solar projects. At ASU, we have a number of solar shade canopies that make space more livable in the summer heat. You could do the same in parks. Plus, parking lots make up a significant portion of American cities, so they could be tapped for this purpose. Developers would need to build the solar panels higher off the ground and initially dig up the lots to put in electrical conduit lines. So, it would certainly be more expensive at first, compared to open farmland. However, the shade is an added benefit, and you can add even more social value if you make them beautiful.

Perhaps most importantly, the urban approach may also move us closer to a more equitable future. Cities are the world’s energy hogs, and it would be good if they produced more of their own energy instead of continuing to impose new infrastructure on rural communities. And urban solar tends to be smaller and owned in a more distributed fashion, which lets more people enjoy financial benefits.

Q: Electricity is so fundamental to the fabric of our lives that we don’t often think about it. We take it for granted. Will a transition from fossil fuels to renewables bring about some unexpected changes to how we live?

A: Almost certainly. Consider the fact that our world has been driven by electricity from large coal-fired power plants for a very long time. Coal still produces more electricity than any other single source of energy, despite all the closures of coal plants and coal mines. Why? Part of the reason is that coal plants deliver the same amount of power all the time — day and night, summer and winter.

But people have never consumed electricity as a constant function. We collectively consume more electricity during the day, and less of it at night when society shuts down. Of course, those coal plants keep generating power at night, and that means there is a surplus of output. This is why electricity is more expensive during the day and cheaper at night.

Converting to solar flips that situation on its head. The surplus will happen during the day, making daytime electricity cheaper than nighttime electricity, since the latter will need to be stored in costly batteries before delivery. It’s already happening in California, where daytime electricity prices are now sometimes even negative, meaning they pay you to use solar energy.

So, what does that mean? We don’t know. But what we do know is that many aspects of today’s society are enabled by cheaper electricity at night. Think about the ubiquity of night life in the form of shopping, restaurants, concert venues and more. In fact, some of the original investors in amusement parks were electricity utilities seeking to create demand for their power surpluses at night and on weekends. If a shift to cheap daytime electricity and expensive nighttime electricity are similarly drivers of behavior, the changes to culture will be significant.

Currently cheap nighttime power also contributed to industry becoming so capital intensive. If your manufacturing equipment operates around the clock, you produce more and you do it more quickly. This is why we have three-shift factories and warehouses. But what does it mean if the most expensive electricity is now in the middle of the night? Does that change — combined with the fact that few workers really like the graveyard shift — sufficiently outweigh the capital investment benefits?

These are scenarios we need to consider as we plan the future of our power grid.

Top photo: The Red Rock Solar Plant, located between Tucson and Casa Grande in Arizona. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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