Media Briefings

Renewable energy and the grid

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Americans are increasingly making the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, with solar and wind leading the charge. SciLine’s media briefing summarized progress towards U.S. renewable energy goals and addressed hurdles that remain for communities—including technical and economic challenges that local governments and utilities must overcome to integrate new solar and wind sources into the grid, and ways that everyday life may change for individuals in a renewable future. Three panelists made short presentations and then took questions on the record. 

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RICK WEISS: Hello, everyone and welcome to SciLine’s media briefing on renewable energy and the grid. I’m Rick Weiss, I’m the director of SciLine. And for those of you not familiar with SciLine, we are a philanthropically-funded, editorially independent, completely free service for reporters and scientists, based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science. Our mission is pretty straightforward. It’s to make it as easy as possible for reporters like you to include scientist sources and scientifically validated information in your news stories, whether those stories are about a science topic per se, or are about goings on in your community, in your state, or region, where a little bit of added scientific evidence will add some rigor and some trust in the story that you’re reporting on. Among other things, we offer a free on deadline expert matching service, through which you can click on the “I need an expert” button at our website,, and we will help find you a scientist source who is vetted by us for their expertise and their communication skills to help you with the story you’re working on.

A couple of quick logistical details before we get started. We have three panelists today who are going to talk to you about renewable energy and the grid. We will have them make short presentations of five to seven minutes each. And then, at the end of those presentations, we’ll get into the Q&A. While they’re speaking or after they’re done, feel free to enter your question by going down to the bottom of your Zoom screen and hovering over that Q&A icon. Please tell us your name, your news outlet, and your question. And if you want to direct that question to someone in particular, let us know that as well. A full video of this briefing will be available by the end of the day today. Typically, if you need a raw copy of the video more immediately than that upon the end of this briefing in an hour, just let us know through that Q&A and we’ll get that to you as well. And we’ll be adding a transcript to that video recording within the next couple of days. All of this will be on Also, if you have any technical questions, you can give us a message through that Q&A prompt as well.

I’m not going to take the time to give full introductions to all three of our speakers today but I do want to tell you the quick order of events here. We’re going to hear first from Dr. Melissa Lott, who is a senior research scholar and the senior director of research at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. She’s going to provide a high-level breakdown of energy resources generated and used in the United States so that you all have the basic context you need for the stories you may write in this domain. And that’s going to set the stage for the deeper dive we’re going to get into in solar and wind after that. So second, we will hear from Dr. Sarah Kurtz, who is a professor and department chair at University of California, Merced, School of Engineering. She’s going to focus on solar energy with special attention to factors like trends in efficiency and cost relative to our national goals for converting to solar, and challenges to increasing solar’s capacity and use. And that includes not just technical considerations, but also behavioral factors. Why are people adopting solar in their lives or not? And third, we’ll hear from Dr. Erin Baker, who is a professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at UMass Amherst, where she’s faculty director of the Energy Transition Institute, which looks at the renewable energy field, not just through a technical lens, but actually through a social justice lens as well. And she’s going to cover topics similar to Dr. Kurtz, but for wind energy, in particular emphasis on offshore wind. And with that, let’s just get started. Over to you, Dr. Lott.

The current status of renewable energy and the grid


MELISSA LOTT: Thanks much, Rick. So, I’m going to share my screen and the slides will be available to go through and if anybody wants more details, I’ve got lots of lectures I use in my classes that give all the details behind. So, when we look at renewable energy and the grid, the first thing that I want to get into is, what do we mean when we say energy and where do we currently get it when we’re in the United States here today? So, when I talk about energy or the energy sector, I’m talking about four buckets of things. So, one is electricity, where we’re going to go do today, but the other buckets around transportation, industry, and buildings. And so, with transportation today, we use mostly petroleum-based fuels, gases, and diesel. In the future, we may use more and more amounts of electricity and that’s a trend we’re already seeing today. Those different parts of the energy sector produce emissions, greenhouse gas emissions broadly in two ways. The first is through burning things, combustion. And the second is through process emissions, which we run into a lot when we come into industry, where we have all these chemical reactions creating the stuff that we want to use in our daily lives.

So, when we look at our overall energy supplies, we see that most of it comes from fossil fuels today. But a large and growing part of it comes from renewable energy. So, wind and solar, where we’ll go deep in today’s discussion, but also biomass, and then hydropower. So, using water to produce electricity, which has been a type of firm power that’s around 24/7, 365 for a long period of time. Now, when we talk about the different commitments, and the different goals that the United States have set, we can talk about our nationally determined contributions that are part of Paris Climate Agreement. These are nonbinding commitments but they are ones that we look at when we talk about setting your own goals.

Within this, I want to highlight two things. So, one is what you see in the chart below, which is what it will take to reach what is our mid-century 2050 goal as a part of the Paris Climate Agreement. Which is to get emissions down to something called net zero, where we found a balance of the emissions we put into the air and what we take out. So, it’s not absolute zero, we might still put emissions out, but we will balance those out. And within that we’ve made this commitment, the second thing I want to highlight, which is just shifting to carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. And the reason that we talk about electricity specifically is because electricity is the workhorse. It’s the backbone of reaching that zero goals of solving climate change, of decarbonizing. And so, what we see is that the electricity we use today is one of the front runners and how we can bring down emissions, but it’s also the enabler of bringing down emissions and the other parts of the energy sector. So, that’s transportation, industry, and buildings.

So, the question is, where do we get electricity. So, that subset of energy from today and where might we get it from in the future if we want to achieve these different goals. So, we see today, if you look at the space to the left of that dotted line that goes up and down are where we’ve gotten our electricity from in the past. And what you can see is that today, we get a little bit more than a third. So roughly, it’s just about 40% today of our electricity from clean or zero carbon sources. So, the purple bar on this is nuclear, that’s the workhorse of zero carbon power today but the growing bars, that green bar, which is wind, and then solar as well. Those are getting much wider over time. And then, on top of that, we see some pretty stable hydro, and then other types of renewables. As we move into the future towards that 2035 goal, what I did is I picked a bunch of studies that are from the International Energy Agency from University of California, Berkeley, and then a broader net zero future study that says out of Princeton, that says, “How would we do this?” And the bottom line is getting to net zero means using a lot of variable renewables like wind and solar. So, those things that are around some of the time than other times. And then, also complementing that with other types of zero carbon electricity, which could come from hydro, another type of renewable, but also nuclear and other things that we’re bringing into the system, which could be things like fossil fuels with technologies that can capture greenhouse gases or other things. These numbers are for across the United States.

So, when we zoom into individual communities, the mix can look a lot different. So, I’m sitting in New York City in New York State today. We pull a lot of hydropower from across the border, actually from Canada to our north. And we want to do increasing amounts of that as we go to net zero because that’s a resource we have access to. But in other parts of the country where I’ve lived, hydro is not as readily accessible. So, when I lived in the Southwest, and I lived in New Mexico, in California, we just didn’t have as much of that. But we had other resources, like increasing amounts of solar, we had some wind, we had other things we can pull from. So, these are the national level numbers, but they look different when you go to local levels. So, when I described what thousands of studies have looked at, when talks about the path to net zero for electricity, what I see across all those studies is that we need a team, we need a lot of different technologies to win the game. And by winning the game, what I mean is having reliable, affordable, and clean electricity available for everyone in every region of the United States. These principles actually apply globally as well but I’m zooming in on the U.S.

So, I like to think of it as a soccer team, because that’s the sport I enjoy. And it seems to work with most of my students who come from countries all over the world. But this is how I break down the team. And if you’re familiar with work out of Princeton University by professor Jesse Jenkins, or any of the thousands of studies behind this, you’ll see this team developed as a pie chart or something else. I’m going to talk about as a soccer team. So. on this team, if we want to win the game, affordable, reliable and clean electricity, we start with strikers. That’s what we’re going to go into in depth today, variable renewable. So, wind and solar mostly, though it could be other things like title. But wind and solar. man, when they’re around, they’re so cheap, we want to use them, they give us a lot of advantages. So, when we can give our strikers the ball, we do that, because that helps us to score goals that helps us win the game. But sometimes they’re not around. They get tired, the sun sets, the wind stops blowing for periods of time, that could be hours or could be weeks, not with the sun but with the wind, it could be weeks.

And so, that’s when we go to our midfielders. So, different types of energy storage. So, energy storage can be batteries, but not just batteries. It can also be things that move electricity across seasons, like thermal storage, storing heat, or hydrogen. But they get tired too. So, we need our defenders. And that’s where we get from dispatchable power, which includes some things like geothermal and hydro, but also fossil fuels, or carbon capture, or nuclear. So, when I say firm power, here’s what I mean. It’s around 24/7, 365. When I want it, it’s available. It might not be the cheapest in a moment, but it makes the entire system cheap. And then, behind that, we have our goalie, which is again, if we can’t eliminate all of our emissions, what our goalie does is it cleans up what’s left. And we use carbon removal technologies for that.

So, I wanted to briefly, in about twenty seconds, talk about some of the barriers that exist to achieving that zero electricity in the US by 2035. The short answer, which I’ll give you a reference to is that technology isn’t the issue. The issue is nontechnical barriers that take a lot of different forms. So, we know how to build a grid, but our existing power grid, the wires between our power plants that connect with our homes, isn’t strong enough to do what we want it to do. And we haven’t figured out how to cite, and permit, and build things. We haven’t figured out where we’re willing to build things. And this entire equation runs into stuff like geopolitics, supply chains, community engagements, and concerns about energy and security if power prices go up. So, a couple of different resources. The one I’ll highlight is that my textbook is actually a free podcast that you can listen to. My students tell me it’s better than the papers I assign. But also, there’s a whole series of other ways that you can engage with the information about my talk. With that, I will pass it back to Rick.


RICK WEISS: Fantastic introduction. Thank you so much. And a reminder to reporters, these slides will be posted soon after the briefing so you can refer to them more closely. Okay. And over to you Dr. Kurtz next.

Solar energy—a bright spot in the news


SARAH KURTZ: Okay. It’s my pleasure to be able to talk to you today about solar energy. Solar energy is a bright spot in the news, much better than reading about all the people who’ve been killed around the world. There are three important elements of most technologies. I’ll talk about the performance for solar. The key thing is the efficiency of conversion from the solar energy to electricity. Cost and reliability, also essential. But for solar, it’s really a new era. It’s been so successful, that it’s difficult to sustain the growth rate that we’ve had historically. Historically, we’ve doubled the number of solar panels that were deployed about every two years. And also, I’ll talk about how we should change the way we think about it.

This graph here is looking at the efficiency of solar panels. These are modules as a function of year. And you can see the numbers are going up. Many technologies have been explored. I’ll have links in my graph here, if you want to get more graphs to date of the many technologies that have been evolved. More than 95% of the sales have been the silicone technologies, and mostly now mono silicone. Currently, the biggest R&D is on how to combine the perovskite with the silicone. Higher efficiencies will help the industry but the industry can already be successful with this. The today’s products are 20 to 22% efficient, which is quite attractive when the fuel is free. The big news in solar is how much the price has dropped. You may have heard that solar is too expensive and it was in 2008. But now, you can see the latest data here. Now, it’s these numbers probably don’t mean much to you but you can now buy a solar panel for less than the cost to buy a window of the same size. Or if you went to paint the walls, if you paid somebody to paint the walls in my room, it costs about the same for a square meter of solar panel as it does to paint the windows in my room.

So now, the cost challenges have more to do with other costs associated with getting that system installed. Solar panels often come with 25-year warranties, which is great. They last a long time. But customers would like a payback time that’s short. They don’t want to wait 25 years. So, solar now can work well for things like pension plans or something where you want a low-risk investment for long-term investment. But a key to deploy it quickly is to look for business models that can enable a large upfront investment with a long-term return. You’ll see the Inflation Reduction Act gives a lot of opportunities. There are also a myriad of local incentive programs that make the investment attractive but it’s really complicated. This is a topic you can talk with your readers about. Now, solar is growing so much, it’s becoming critical to our daily lives today.

This graph shows the fraction of electricity that was generated from solar relative to the total electricity generation in the state of California. You see the monthly data as a function of time go up and down during the winter, you get less than during the summer, but the on an annual basis, you can see the numbers have been going up steadily. Currently, more than 27% of the electricity generated in California is from solar. Indeed, there are a number of states across the U.S.—in Nevada, Massachusetts, and others—that are doing very well. The U.S. as a whole is at a much lower 5%. You can go and look up the data for your particular state if you’d like. It’s available online. As we rely more and more on solar electricity, we should begin to think about it differently. We not only rely on it to be able to keep the lights on but maybe we could make it pretty. I have here a tile, I think you can see it, okay, that is designed to generate. It is a solar cell but it makes it much more attractive if we keep it in. Also we’re looking at being able to use that solar electricity at night. This graph shows the batteries charging when the sun comes up in the morning, and then discharging when the sun sets in the evening. California now has seven gigawatts of batteries. This is another really impressive success story. Another bright spot when you read the news. These store electricity during the day, and then provide it back to the grid after sunset. And if you don’t know what seven gigawatts means, typically California is using about 25 to 30 gigawatts. So, this may be a fourth, or even sometimes a third of what the demand is.

A question is, “What if we put solar over our parking lots and charged our electric vehicles there?” Then, you wouldn’t need to use the batteries because you’re using the batteries in the car and they charge at the right time. Now, a question is, “How fast can solar grow?” It’s also often confusing to people. It’s like, “Well, solar doesn’t do much.” On this left graph here, we have the data for the U.S. in 2022 at the electricity generation. And you can see solar was about maybe on the order of 5% of the total generation. Here on the right, I have the net expansions. This is how many generators do we have out there? And if you look at the total number deployed, subtract the number that were there in 2021 versus 2022. You find that it’s all solar and wind. The question is, “What happened to fossil?” Well, the retirements of coal are actually greater than the new gas. This is according to the EIA Data. So, a question is, “How can solar grow faster?” To get solar to grow faster, we really need to electrify. As you just heard about in the previous talk, transportation needs electricity. And that’s the way we can grow solar faster is to begin to use more electric vehicles. So, just to leave you with a quick concluding thought, the beautiful thing about renewable energy, the more you use it, the cheaper it gets, which paves the pathway to prosperity for the whole world.


RICK WEISS: Again, really interesting and useful introduction to the solar field here and very interesting to hear this theme emerging that technology is going great. There are some other issues including bureaucracy and some social science issues that are actually a bigger part of the renewable energy story than I think journalism has necessarily appreciated. So, thanks for that. And let’s go over now to Dr. Baker.

Offshore wind energy


ERIN BAKER: Okay. Somebody was going to share my slides. Great. OK. You can go to the next slide. I’m going to talk mostly about offshore wind, although I can field questions about land-based wind at the end. So, offshore wind turbines are these giant turbines which are in the water, in the ocean, or the Great Lakes. Some of them are put directly into the seabed floor and others are floating and moored to the ground. They’re giant, they can be about 275 yards tall, with each blade longer than a football field. They tend to be about twice as large as a typical land-based wind turbine. They’re great because there’s a lot of wind resource in the ocean, as anyone knows has gone to the beach. There’s a lot of breezes at the beach. And so, this is really useful. They also tend to be near population centers. A third of the U.S. population, many large cities are in counties that include a coastline, whether for the ocean or the Great Lakes. Another nice aspect of offshore wind is that it tends to blow them most in the afternoon and early evening, when demand for electricity is very high. And it also works really well combined with solar, which works during the day and onshore wind, which has a tendency to be strongest at night. So, all of these technologies as we’ve seen onshore wind, offshore wind, solar, are really crucial for addressing climate change.

As they substitute for fossil-based generation, they reduce emissions. But also as we have this goal of net zero, the kind of more things we have to meet this goal that reduces our cost of meeting the goal. So, offshore wind is a new and growing industry. It’s got about sixty gigawatts worldwide. This compares to seven gigawatts eight years ago. So, about an order of magnitude in about eight years, where again, we heard thirty gigawatts powers California, one gigawatt can power a city the size of Chicago. So, there’s sixty gigawatts worldwide but less than a half of a gigawatt in the U.S. We’re a little bit behind on offshore wind. Offshore wind, though, is a new industry. So, the sixty gigawatts worldwide compared to 160 gigawatts of solar just in the U.S., 145 gigawatts of onshore wind just in the U.S. All right, the next slide, please. OK.

So, we can talk about the cost. The cost for all these technologies you’ve heard has been coming down really, really rapidly. Wind onshore and offshore, solar batteries have been reducing by 50%, 85% over really short periods. So, what I’m showing here are some costs in 2022. So, offshore wind in Europe was about six cents per kilowatt hour. In the U.S., estimated to be about seven cents. Again, a little more expensive because we’re a little bit behind. We can compare this with onshore wind and coal, and see that those are still a little bit less expensive. And then, compare that with what consumers pay, which is, on average, about 17 cents a kilowatt hour. So, I did a large scale study where experts projected or forecasted where offshore wind might go. And found that by 2050, they were predicting it would be about four or five cents a kilowatt hour. And so, pretty competitive with other technologies. This is good news. The even better news is, in my work, I found that experts have been consistently surprised by how much costs have gone down, whether it’s for solar, or batteries, for all of these things. They keep estimating costs, and the costs keep going down much more than they expect. And so, I actually would not be surprised if we get far below four or five cents a kilowatt hour. All right, next slide, please.

So, the U.S. currently has a goal of thirty gigawatts by 2030. And again, we have something that’s pretty close to zero right now. So, it’s a pretty ambitious goal. It was matching the worldwide total of just a couple years ago when this goal was made. Pretty ambitious. Thirty gigawatts means about fifty offshore plants around the coast, the sea coast and in the Great Lakes. And each offshore wind plant would have about fifty turbines per wind plant. All right. So, let me talk a little bit about the challenges and hurdles. So, one challenge for offshore wind is a short-term cost challenge due to COVID. COVID caused this inflation that we hadn’t seen for a long time, that caused interest rates to go up. This is a problem because wind and solar, both of them, all the cost is at the beginning, right? When you build the wind turbine, you spend all this money to build the wind turbine, then the wind blows for twenty or thirty years and you get essentially free electricity, but you have to build them. In order to build them, you need to borrow money. And so, the interest rate is really important. And these high interest rates are driving up the cost. There is a nice solution, which is sometimes called green bonds. The idea is that the Federal Reserve, or similar agency, could make capital available at a low rate to renewable energy projects, okay? This would be very similar to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that do this for mortgages, okay? Another challenge that I think we’ve seen listed in another presentation is the supply chain. It’s an entirely new industry. We need to get together things like these crazy ships, when you train workers, components, people who understand the finance. And we need to do this all quickly if we’re going to get to thirty gigawatts by 2030. And so, the goal is very useful.

Another thing that would be great would be to streamline the siting, permitting, grid interconnection process. So, to streamline the administration. When the U.S. set the goal of thirty gigawatts, they also coordinated the seven federal agencies that are all involved in the permitting and siting process. So, they made a kind of one stop shopping. But developers space tens of other organizations that they have to apply to, and work with, in order to get these things in the water. It would be really great to streamline that, so that the timing of when these things come online was much more predictable, OK? And the third thing we’ve already heard is something sometimes called grid integration, that the wind and solar work when the wind is blowing, and the sun is shining. And so, we need something complementary. Maybe battery storage, pumped hydro, maybe hydrogen.

We need to think about how we’re going to make our grid work when we want it to work, OK? So, to conclude just a couple of points. One is to come back to this idea that experts have been surprised over and over about innovation and human ingenuity. Costs have come down very, very fast and we have a precedent in the Clean Air Act, right? This not only improved our quality of life immensely, but it turned out to be much less costly than predicted. And so, we need to keep that in mind that people are very innovative and ingenuitive. If we go for net zero on a short timescale, I think it’s very likely we will innovate our way there and the cost will not actually be that high. And then, for offshore wind, I think it’s a very cool technology, right, the largest rotating machines on Earth. Very promising for meeting climate goals and reaching net zero. With green bonds and streamlined processes, the U.S. could catch up and eventually take a leadership role in this technology. Thank you.


What is being done well in press coverage of these issues, and where is there room for improvement?


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Dr. Baker. A pretty inspiring story there as well. And so interesting that scientists and others have been under estimating how quickly cost would come down, which seems like a great thing, since they’ve also been a little bit underestimating how quickly global warming was going to be happening. So, let’s keep the pressure on. So, that takes us through the introductions. Again, to reporters, if you’ve got questions now, this is the time to put them into the Q&A icon at the bottom there. But to get things started, I’d like to ask each of our speakers at these briefings one question just to get us going. And that is for them to address the issue as news consumers themselves, what did they see in the coverage of renewable energy that either is impressive and they like, and they’d like to encourage you reporters to do more of it, or something that sort of nags at them sometimes when they see these renewable energy stories, and that they’d like to see a corrective put into place. So, let’s quickly go through and hear what each of our three speakers feels about news coverage, and what could perhaps be done a little bit better. I’ll start with you, Dr. Lott.


MELISSA LOTT: So, in the two buckets, I’ll just say really briefly, on the positive stuff, I’ve seen change. So, I’ve been doing this twenty years. In the past, I would say five to seven, I’ve seen a shift to some stories that are only about one technology, or only about energy or climate to ones that discuss lots of different technologies, how we get an entire system to our goals, and leaning into the connections between energy climate and air pollution, Erin, as you just said. So, I think that’s great. The thing that gets me and — oh, my students could tell you long stories about me doing this in class — but is the difference between energy and electricity. They’re different things. Electricity is a subset of what we refer to as energy. And if you haven’t been working in it a long time, it’s super easy to get it flipped. But that is one that just realizing what part of that wedge are we actually, what wedge in that pie are we actually solving? Is it all of energy or is it the electricity piece of it?


RICK WEISS: Great. Thank you. Dr. Kurtz.


SARAH KURTZ: Yes. I think the media’s been doing really a very good job. I think the things I love to see are the excitement over the success of how fast the energy transition is being able to occur. I think maybe the thing that sometimes bothers me, I really liked the idea of the difference between energy and electricity, not really understanding the details. But often, things come across as a lot of hype that we’re looking at either there’s a breakthrough, but when you actually look at it, maybe it’s not such a breakthrough, or to look on the sensational things of that well, this project got turned down because people didn’t like it or whatever. So, focusing more on the substance would be the thing that I’m looking for.


RICK WEISS: Great, thank you. And Dr. Baker.


ERIN BAKER: All right. For me, I think it’s important when looking at something Dr. Kurtz just mentioned kind of public acceptance and environmental impacts of wind and solar. These have been big, covered by the news that we really look at both sides. And so, for example, wind turbines will have some impact on birds. They might directly kill some birds, usually they go around, but it will affect birds, it will be much less than house cats, it will affect birds. But these local impacts are dwarfed by the impacts of climate change. And I’d like to see that addressed more that turbines will kill individual birds, climate change will cause species to go extinct. And so, kind of keeping this in mind when you’re reporting that would be great.

What are the potential long term environmental impacts of old or abandoned solar panels and wind turbines?


RICK WEISS: Great, great start. And actually that answer, Dr. Baker, leads nicely segues into the first question I’ll read out here, which is from actually, it’s a question that a number of reporters have asked in various ways, including Karen Wright from KMSU Public Radio in Minnesota and Craig Miller at PBS. How will some of these clean energy alternatives affect the environment long term? Are they truly cleaner? For example, could old or abandoned solar panels or wind turbine parts leave behind toxic pollutants?


RICK WEISS: Do you want to start with that, Erin, and—go ahead.


ERIN BAKER: Yeah, sure. I mean, from my understanding, so there’s something called lifecycle analysis, which tries to look at these from the beginning all the way through the end. So, one thing that’s important is there is no perfect technology anywhere that has zero impact on any—I should be careful. Maybe it is, but I haven’t seen it, right? And so, we really want to think about it in comparison. And from everything I’ve looked at, solar and wind in comparison to fossil fuels for energy generation, have a vastly lower environmental impact. They don’t have no environmental impact, right, there is some environmental impact. But again, we have to remember innovation and ingenuity. So, once we’re faced with large amounts of solar and large amounts of wind turbines, and we’re going to have to figure out what to do at the end of life, people can innovate and find ways of doing that, that will minimize the impact on the environment. But overall, compared to what they’re replacing fossil fuels, their impacts are small.


RICK WEISS: Melissa, did you want to weigh in on that as well?


MELISSA LOTT: I’ll just say we’ve learned a lot from processes in the past. And one really great thing when we look at the future in a net zero world is that so much of our electricity today comes from fuels that are kind of like on the timescales we care about. It’s passed through things. So, we burn natural gas, we burn coal, and then we have to extract more to replace it, these types of things. When it comes to solar and wind, we haven’t perfected every part of it, far from that. But we do have ways of recovering tons of the materials that are involved in them. They’re really valuable. We don’t want to dig them out of the ground and have to establish new mines, we figured out ways to recover a lot of it. And we will get better with that over time. And the thing that I find encouraging is that this is a part of the conversation today, it’s not an afterthought. It’s something that’s being considered today. How do we set up recycling systems for wind, for solar, also for batteries? How do we recover all that valuable material, so that we can put it back into the system? It’s not something that we’re twenty years or thirty years into having it be 80% of our electricity and now we’re trying to figure it out. We are thinking about it from a much earlier stage of development.


SARAH KURTZ: And I would agree there’s if we want the world to go back to the way it was before people were here, the best thing to do would be to take the people away, but that’s not what our goal is. So, even just building a house, so we have a place to live, we disturb the environment. Anything we do to generate electricity is going to disturb the environment. But what you see with solar and wind is that it’s really fairly minimal. The main waste stream you get with the solar currently is the glass, which is a lot like if you tear down the house and you have the windows that are then waste. The toxicity, things like that is not that great when you look at the amount of waste. I had this discussion with my students recently, and they were like, “But there’s going to be so much waste from solar.” But if you look at it, it’s like a minuscule amount compared to all the other wastes that we have. And so, as the other speakers are indicating, innovation will help us to solve those things. And it’s not perfect yet, but it’s actually if you look at what’s the best solution to go forward, solar and wind are doing wonderfully in terms of looking at that big picture, what is the least disruption to the environment?

What can policymakers do to reduce costs, cut red tape, and get offshore wind projects off the ground?


RICK WEISS: Great, thank you. Next question here is from climate podcaster Ethan Brown based in Connecticut. “In light of several offshore wind contracts being cancelled in the Northeast in recent months, what moves must policymakers or energy developers make to reduce costs, cut red tape, or otherwise ease the process of getting these offshore wind projects off the ground?” We heard a little bit about that from you, Erin. Is there more you want to add there?


ERIN BAKER: Yeah, I think, yeah, I was trying to I mean, that is an issue are concerned about it. But those the kinds of things I suggested this green bonds, which I think is very interesting. I’d like to see a lot more about that out in the news. It’s a very interesting, very realistic possibility. So, that would help a lot. And then, the streamlining the permitting. That’s a very, very tricky issue and kind of bringing up with Dr. Lott, Dr. Kurtz and say, “This is an administrative issue, it’s an organizing people issue.” How do we, because what we don’t want, so there’s been a little bit of a bugaboo saying like we shouldn’t be having environmental regulations or environmental permitting at all. And that is not correct. We want to make sure that these wind farms are environmentally responsible, but it’s that it’s so disorganized right now. So, try to figure out how to coordinate that would be great. Very difficult, because these are like little individual townships, and so on. So, I don’t have the solution for that. But I think streamlining the permitting, and the green balance are some really good possibilities.


MELISSA LOTT: And I’ll just add very quickly to that. If you want to learn more about green bonds, to Erin’s point, there’s a paper that came out of this and on global energy policy by my colleague, Gautam Jain who is back in academia after decades, and how to move money around that part of New York City. And you can read through the practical steps about it, why there’s such a big deal. But to this point, we did a lot to streamline getting the existing offshore wind contracts there. We did these blocks of places where we did an environmental review, and we said, “This whole area we’ve done a review on, those types of things.”

The question now is, “How do we adapt in the face of changing conditions over the cost of the projects?” And there’s a lot of different options that we can do with existing projects. So, we can relook and say, “OK, are we willing to rewrite the contract so that the company is not going to be in a position where if they move forward, they would lose money?” And that’s when you talk to wind developers what they’re facing because of the changing conditions. But then, we can also think, to Erin’s point, about how we hedge for future projects. So, we’ve done this through policy through things like risk guarantees. Different mechanisms that essentially make sure that a project in the face of changing conditions which happened over the years it takes to get a project built, that they can weather those storms, that they can face those shifts, and so successfully get the project built and connected to the grid, and supplying electricity to our homes. So, we’re not going from a blank slate. We have lots of tools, we just have to decide. And that’s a leadership question about how we’re going to use them, where, and when?

How cost effective is battery storage for large scale power?


RICK WEISS: Yeah, interesting. I think this really speaks to the fact that these are sort of multipart stories that can often be helped on the journalism side by collaborating with business reporters, with other kinds of reporters who have more expertise, not in the science side, but in some of these social science type and business type issues. Here’s a request from David Mitchell from the Baton Rouge Advocate. “Can you speak to the cost effectiveness of battery storage for large scale power? Some folks in my area suggest it’s not there yet. Where are things and what are the challenges?” Sarah Kurtz, you want to start with that?


SARAH KURTZ: Sure, I might just note that we already have, in California, enough batteries installed to be able to meet something approaching a third of the total electricity. Batteries had been really actually lucrative for something we call ancillary services, which is to help keep the grid stable on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s true that the batteries are not quite as low as in cost as we’d like. But the cost has like dropped by something like a factor of two in the last year. It’s looking a lot like what that graph I showed you for silicon is, that the price was way too high and now it’s coming down so fast. With all the supply chain issues, it’s really hard to sort out what the actual cost is. And there are also a lot of issues having to do with permitting and things. But the primary challenges left are how long will those batteries last? You all know, like your cell phone battery works great at first when you buy it, but then like two years later, is it still working well? Making the technology so that the batteries don’t wear out, making the technology so that there aren’t fires? Those are the kinds of things that we’re looking at that still need to be solved. But that’s on a price trajectory that will enable it to be successful for diurnal storage that is just store it at night and give you the electricity during the day. It’s much more difficult if you’re looking at putting in so many batteries that you would have weeks of power. Then, that’s still a major problem.


MELISSA LOTT: And I’ll just mention if I can, Rick, really briefly, on that, that when it comes to batteries, this idea of how do we make them safe? How do we make them cheaper? How do we recycle them, all super important? But when it comes to overall batteries, we talk a lot about that arbitrage. So, moving solar from the day to the night effectively by storing in a battery. In my home state of Texas, there was this battery that was put in many years ago at this point. So, the costs are a lot higher in Presidio, Texas. And what that was doing was actually saving us money by not having to build another transmission line and, actually, just buying time before we had to build another wire. So, a cool thing with batteries is just they can do a lot of different things for us. And in different parts of the electricity system, to the point of the people you’re speaking with, it might not make sense in a certain location. But overall, there’s so many locations where absolutely makes sense. And it gives us just another tool in the toolbox to reduce costs, and back us up so the lights stay on, and power prices stay low.


SARAH KURTZ: And there are some storage technologies that are more scalable than like totally batteries.


MELISSA LOTT: Absolutely. Storage is so much more than even just batteries of all the different chemistries. It’s a lot more than that.

How concerned are you about critical metals in the renewable energy supply chain?


RICK WEISS: Well, speaking of chemistries, we have this question here from Vince Beiser from Wired magazine. “Have any of you looked into the issues around acquiring the critical metals: lithium, copper, rare earths, et cetera, needed to build the machinery of renewable energy?” And I think we’re talking here about generation and storage? “If so, how concerned are you about that part of the supply chain?”


MELISSA LOTT: I’ve got so many thoughts. But Erin or Sarah, do you want to jump in first?


SARAH KURTZ: Why don’t you go ahead with that one. It’s a very complicated one, which—geopolitics is dominant right now.


MELISSA LOTT: One I’ll mention, I’m halfway through, Ernest Scheyder, so a reporter’s book, that really speaks about this when you speak about what is under the ground that we need to dig up to supply all the things that we need. So, baseline for those who don’t focus on critical materials that come in different forums. I just talked a lot about electrifying things. And we’re talking about wind turbines, and solar panels, and batteries. What we see overall is that when you move from the current electricity grid to the future one, we use less extraction. So, we don’t extract as much stuff. But we use a lot more of particular things we take out of the ground. We talk about lithium a lot with batteries, but actually think about copper a lot more. And that’s because we currently dig about twenty million metric tons of it out of the ground today. In a net zero world as we move into the future, we need to like 8x that probably, globally.

And so, the question is, how do we build those mines? Currently, it takes fourteen, fifteen years to actually build one. Where are they going to be? How do we think about human rights? All those different aspects? This is one of the reasons why but it’s far from the only reason why thinking about circularity or thinking about recycling, thinking about lifecycle analysis, the whole life of these technologies are so important. Because if we do this really well one thing that my team, which is led by professor Tom Moerenhout and Dan Steingart, but they talk about as if we do this well, we did these things out of the ground, and we take them out once. And then, we keep reusing them in a lot of different ways. But we don’t have to keep actually digging as much out of the ground. But this one hits geopolitics, it hits trade, it hits so many different aspects. The question of where will we build a mine, what communities will be impacted, the equity and justice considerations? It’s a real deep one. If you want to talk offline about it, I’m happy to. We think about this a lot, I can send you some papers.


SARAH KURTZ: And I also just add really quickly, we often hear people say, “Well, we’re going to need this much and the supply is only this much. We would need to grow that supply.” Well, the fact is that when there is a need for something, technology, I call it the never-ending race between scarcity and technology. And often, if there isn’t demand for something right now, why would people invest in more mines, or more refining capability, or whatever? When the need evolves, then people typically are devolving the technology. And so, the idea that well, we’re just going to run out of that, it’s not a black and white thing. It’s a race between the technology. And what you’ve sometimes find is that identifying a different technology, sometimes is a better thing than trying to get more of this. But we’re in amazing situations where people have been evolving the technology to solve these problems. One of the big problems is if things are growing like this, how do you predict five years from now if you need to make an investment in a mine? What will be the demand for that five years from now? And it’s very difficult to predict when the growth rate is like this.


MELISSA LOTT: Absolutely.


ERIN BAKER: And I say along those lines very much is the idea, also, of substituting the current materials for other materials. So, we’re really interested in really understanding the environmental justice impacts of the materials used in all these technologies. And then, working with the lab bench scientist to say like, “Okay, how can how can we do this? How can we build a solar cell that doesn’t have this little material, is there another substitute?” And so, this innovation, whether it’s in mining it in a faster and more sustainable way, or just changing the materials we use. I’m very hopeful about it as everything grows, if we keep an eye on sustainability, and justice, that we will be able to address these things. And I think that Melissa Lott was mentioning this, that, in general, the industries now are far ahead of where coal and oil and natural gas were when they started. We are paying attention to some of these equity issues and so have a good potential to be able to dress them.


MELISSA LOTT: And Rick, I realized I should have mentioned, the first reference on my slides about the podcast that we have here, which is for free for everyone. The next season, which releases in three weeks and change is specifically on critical minerals and how we think about them in the energy transition across all these technologies may address all these issues that Erin and Sarah brought up in different ways. So, check it out, got a lot of academics plus people living in the fields and working on these things and community members, so.

Are there examples of rural areas where renewable energy developers have effectively engaged with the community?


RICK WEISS: Great. And it sounds like the Full Employment Act for chemists and material scientists in the few years ahead. Let’s talk a little bit about maybe the social science side of things with this request from a freelance reporter, Juliet Grable, based in Oregon. “I live in Southern Oregon and have noticed a lot of resistance among rural communities to new, larger wind and solar developments. Sometimes developers or companies don’t seem to do a very good job at meaningful community engagement and they’re viewed as just another big company that wants to come in and exploit them. Are there examples where community engagement in rural communities has been done especially well, and good possible, and might serve as a model?”


ERIN BAKER: Okay, just very briefly. I mean, I think a pretty, pretty good example was Block Island, it’s not a huge, it was the first offshore wind turbine farm in the U.S. It’s a very small one. But there was a lot of work went into it. University of Rhode Island was very involved, there were just so many studies that was worked with the community. In that case, the community got a very clear benefit, because there was a transmission line that was built from the main grid to the island, which brought their electricity costs down from something like seventy cents a kilowatt hour to 15 cents a kilowatt hour. And they got to shut down their very noisy generation. But it was it was a good example. You know, it’s a small one but I think that that’s at least someplace that people can look for this kind of very, very systematic planning, dealing with community issues, as well as everything else. Not perfect. Fisher people are still a little bit nervous about offshore wind. We’re still working on how to work with them.


RICK WEISS: Related—oh, go ahead, Melissa. Another comment?


MELISSA LOTT: I’ll just say really briefly, if we want to go down specifically, in the case of solar, I just recommend you reach out to Steph Speirs, who’s the CEO of Solstice. She does community engagement and their tagline, I think, is something to the effect of solar for anyone. And I was on a panel with her at Aspen Ideas Festival two summers ago. And we really started the conversation, which we took offline after, about what real community engagement not to check the box exercise, what that really looks like and where it’s successful. I know there are some examples when it comes to the one story within the competitive renewable energy zone regions within the state of Texas through its first big rollout, the idea of which communities wanted it, what were the conditions under which the communities would bring them in, whether it was compensation, partial ownership, these types of things. But there are some examples there. But Steph is full of it and she’s had a career of engaging deeply with communities and could provide a very interesting perspective. For rural communities specifically.

Are there examples of successful tribal-led renewable energy efforts outside of the Nornthwest?


RICK WEISS: Steph might be the answer to this next question as well or maybe one of you can speak to it. This is getting more specific from Mia Maldonado from the Idaho Capitol Sun, a place we visited just a few months ago. Great team there. “I’m based in Boise, Idaho and tribes here specifically, the Nez Perce tribe, have spearheaded efforts to move away from hydropower and adopt solar and battery storage units. The tribe is working with other regional tribes to create a network of distributed power unit systems that can be interconnected. And my question is: Are there other tribal-led energy efforts outside the Northwest that had been successful or unsuccessful?” Any examples any of you have?


MELISSA LOTT: So Mia, if you want, I can send you a couple of different pieces we have from our engagement with indigenous communities across North America, so including Mexico and Canada. Some of the most interesting ones I found lately are actually willing Canadian First Peoples tribes. So, which has to do with equity ownership of these different types of infrastructure projects: solar, wind, but also big hydro in that case, because when you look at was it the eastern parts of Canada and all the hydro that they pull into the US. But there’s some great examples of what they have done not only to bring in the communities impacted into the equation have votes at tables also of equity ownerships and projects. But what they’ve done to enable the financing of these projects, because one thing that I have seen that’s overlooked in many of them is great a community and indigenous community can have equity ownership, but they don’t have the ability to actually get the funding, or get the loans, and they don’t have the cash on hand. So, it’s how do you move it from being performative to reality? And so, there’s some good examples there. And I’m happy to put you in touch with some of the tribes that we have worked with here at Columbia University through our different projects.

What role do government incentive programs play in the transition to renewable energy?


RICK WEISS: Excellent. And actually a related question that will segue to hear from Marlowe Starling, freelance reporter for Sierra magazine, “Where do government incentive programs for renewable energy like rooftop solar play a role in this transition? Generally speaking, how have they succeeded and how can they be improved? I know as a reader myself, I seem to see stories now and then that there’s some incentive program here, but now it’s going away. What really is in place right now and how effective are they?”


SARAH KURTZ: So, I can answer quickly to say the Inflation Reduction Act provides a lot of incentives for a lots of types of things. It’s very confusing. Right now, the IRS is rolling out the detailed guidance about what will count and what won’t count. And the net metering programs and other ones that are statewide, there is a website desire that will enable you to go on and see what’s available in your state because it’s very complicated. The number one thing that would be most useful is to have longer-term plans about how they will ramp down slowly. The idea that well, we extend it for another three years, and then maybe it ends for a year or two, and then we’ll put it back up for three years. It’s a recipe for putting all the companies out of business, having some understanding of what you can do a business plan in the next few years and having a stable understanding of what’s going to be there and not there, I think, would be the most useful thing to get a healthy marketing system going.


ERIN BAKER: I would just comment, what I think incentives have worked pretty well. We see a lot of rooftop solar. One concern we have is that these incentives don’t necessarily go to everyone equal. So, rooftop solar is a good example. The incentives tend to go to kind of middle class people, people who own houses, not in the city, can’t have shade on your roof, you have to have a roofed house to have that. And so, it’s a little bit inequitable right now. And so, one thing that I think states are thinking about working on is how to retool the incentives and so that we can make them available to a broader range of people. I know in Boston, there’s this kind of a nonprofit called Blue Hub Capital that’s really working to make sure that people living in subsidized housing, and low cost, multifamily housing, can get access to some of these incentives and can get some ownership of solar even though it’s not on their own rooftops. So, I think it’s really important that we look at creative ways to make sure that incentives are spread evenly, and that we’re not taking money from everyone and giving them only to the wealthy.


MELISSA LOTT: And I’ll give a recommendation for anyone who wants to dive further in this. A real world example is BlocPower. It’s led by Donnel Baird, who happens to be a Columbia graduate but that’s not why I’m mentioning him. He’s done a big project, his whole company, in this space Brownsville, which is a low income community not too far from where I’m sitting today. And honestly, when you go there, it looks like when it comes to solar and renewables deployment in low income communities, it looks like a miracle has happened. You’re like, how did this happen? Well, Donnel will tell you and you can go into that in great detail. As is my colleague, Diana Hernandez, who talks about this. What are the barriers to entry for those? Either you don’t have a rooftop, or maybe you do that you own and have control over, but you don’t have access to the money or you don’t have the time to fill out the paperwork to get the subsidy or the incentive. And so, all the different breakdowns in terms of what keeps people from taking advantage of programs, and then having this be equally distributed, or at least equal access to the opportunity. And there’s something that they do a lot of work on have spoken a lot of and one of the references on my slide deck actually links you to work that Donnel has done.

How does the lack of transmission capibility in the U.S. affect integration of wind and solar energy into the grid?


RICK WEISS: Fantastic. I’m going to try to squeeze a couple more questions in our last five minutes. Before I do that, I want to remind reporters as you do leave at the end of the hour, you will get a prompt for a quick just three or four questions survey. We all hate these how did you like it surveys, but this is very specific. I can really help us plan briefings like this that will work best for you as reporters. So, I really encourage you to take about a half a minute it takes to fill out that survey when you leave. But a couple more great questions here I want to get to before we wrap up and this one is from Emily Waltz from IEEE Spectrum. “Can you talk about the lack of transmission capability in the U.S., and how that affects incorporation of wind and solar energy into the grid.” Anyone want to jump on that first?


SARAH KURTZ: So, definitely more transmission would help.


RICK WEISS: And that means literally more wires?


ERIN BAKER: More and sometimes just higher capacity, but both of those things. Yeah, the example that so kind of heartbreaking in some ways is that transmission from Canada to Boston. So Canada, I think which Melissa mentioned, they’ve got lots and lots of hydro power, which is such a such a good thing to have when you have wind, energy, and solar. And so, we’re hoping to get transmission from Canada to Boston but there’s been a lot of pushback. The states in between feel like they’re not benefiting, I guess, again, community engagement hasn’t been enough. So, we haven’t been able to build that transmission. Would be really great to be able to build that transmission, otherwise, we’re left with—it’s possible but harder to do everything on a smaller local area. It would be ultimately much less expensive if we could build transmission.


MELISSA LOTT: And within that, we need to invest in the entire grid from transmission, the really big wires that go from power plants to communities, and also the small wires that then take it to our homes. So, limiting factors on how many things we can connect in our homes and on that side, and how many different rooftop solar panels and other things. It comes down to those little wires that come with that our homes, which are not fit for purpose for what we’re trying to do moving forward in most parts of the United States. But that’s not a technical problem. We know how to solve that. We just have to make the choice to do it.

Why do electric utility executives say they are unsure how to achieve the final 20-30% of electricity decarbonization?


RICK WEISS: Want to squeeze in one more question here from Diego Mendoza-Moyers from the El Paso Matters. “When I talk with executives of large vertically integrated utilities like El Paso Electric or CPS Energy in Texas, you typically hear a willingness to adopt renewable energy but commonly don’t they say they don’t know how to achieve the final 20 to 30% of electricity decarbonization. If the technology to reach a zero carbon power grid is there today, why are electric utility executives unsure how to achieve 100% decarbonization?” I’m going to ask someone to answer that big fat question in a minute or less.


SARAH KURTZ: A one minute—is that there are so many different solutions that we don’t know which one is the optimum one yet. And we’ll choose the optimum one when we get closer. That decision needs to be made 10 years from now, not today, probably.


MELISSA LOTT: And I would just say that one of the things that utility — I talked to a lot of utility executives, I’m from Texas, so I smiled at all the ones you listed. One of the questions they say it’s actually not a technical problem, though, some of it they do have questions about what the last 10 or 20% is going to be, what the optimal decision point is going to be. The other question they have is are the markets going to be ready to pay them for it? Are they going to get approval on their rate cases or are they going to be able to be paid back for it? Because right now, they’re just not confident in the whole system being able to support what they’re trying to do. And that’s not a technical question in a lot of cases.

What is one key take-home message for reporters covering this topic?


RICK WEISS: Great. This has been such a rich briefing. I wanted for one last question to each of you. We do this with every briefing, just ask each of you to take twenty, 25 seconds, and give reporters on the line here one take home message, if there’s one thing you want them to walk away with that they really have resonating in their heads, what’s the one thing you want them to walk away with today, and I’ll go through all three of these starting with you, Melissa.


MELISSA LOTT: We need a lot of technologies to get this done. Each one has their role and when they play together on a team that works out really well. When they try to go solo, doesn’t work that great. So, that’s the grid, the wires, all the technologies that connect on both sides.


RICK WEISS: Thanks. Sarah Kurtz.


SARAH KURTZ: Similarly, there’s nothing out there, no solution that’s perfect. We should be willing to accept that every solution will have some small downside. And if we can look at the bigger picture of using all of them, as Melissa just said, we will get there fast.


RICK WEISS: Great. And Erin Baker.


ERIN BAKER: All right. Well, I was going to say offshore wind has immense value in the fight against climate change. And the government can help by setting goals, by providing green bonds, and by working to streamline all the administrative processes that need to be done to get it installed.


RICK WEISS: Spectacular. This has been such a great briefing. I think reporters are really well armed right now to dig into these topics and write for their communities, for their states, and regions. I so appreciate all the work and time that three of you panelists have put into preparing, and sharing your insights, and your wisdom, and expertise with reporters today. Thank you reporters for the coverage you’ll be giving to this super important topic in the year ahead. And I hope to see you again in the next few weeks at our next SciLine media briefing. So long.

Dr. Erin Baker

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Dr. Erin Baker is a distinguished professor of industrial engineering and operations research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the faculty director of the Energy Transition Institute, which is focused on stakeholder-engaged research at the intersection of energy technology and social equity. She combines operations research methods and economics to decision-making under uncertainty, with a focus on energy justice and publicly-funded energy technology research & development portfolios in the face of climate change.

Declared interests:


Dr. Sarah Kurtz

University of California, Merced

Dr. Sarah Kurtz now works at the University of California, Merced, after more than 30 years working at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. She is known for her contributions to developing multijunction, GaInP/GaAs solar cells, supporting the concentrator photovoltaic industry, and leading efforts on PV performance and reliability. At the University of California, Merced, she is working both to help the university grow and to support the energy transition through a variety of studies, including a current study on long-duration energy storage.

Declared interests:


Dr. Melissa Lott

Columbia University

Dr. Melissa Lott is the director of research of Columbia University’s SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy and a professor of practice at Columbia’s Climate School. Dr. Lott also serves on the United Nations Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition, an independent advisory council to the UN Secretary General. She is also a current member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Economics of Equitable Transition. She specializes in technology and policy research, working to increase our understanding of the impacts of our energy systems on air pollution and public health. She directly applies this understanding to help decision-makers mobilize solutions to support the low-carbon transition.

Declared interests:


Dr. Melissa Lott presentation


Dr. Sarah Kurtz presentation


Dr. Erin Baker presentation