Experts on Camera

Dr. Erin Baker: Transition to renewable energy

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Many places are undertaking efforts to transition their energy sources from fossil fuels to renewables.

On Tuesday, June 7th, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Erin Baker, a professor of industrial engineering and operations research—and the faculty director of The Energy Transition Institute—at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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ERIN BAKER: I am Erin Baker. I’m distinguished professor of industrial engineering and faculty director of the Energy Transition Institute. At ETI, we focus on stakeholder-engaged research at the intersection of energy technology, climate resilience and social equity. And I focus on energy technology research, especially around electricity.


Interview with SciLine

How is our country doing at making the transition to renewable energy by way of policy and regulation?


ERIN BAKER: Well, when it comes to technology, I think we’re doing fairly well. There has been really amazing technological change over the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve seen offshore wind is half the price that it was six years ago. Solar came down with a sixfold decrease since 2010, batteries from electric vehicles. So, we’re doing pretty well on technology. And I think there’s a lot of evidence that technology will adapt if we set the goals and incentives for it. So, when it comes to policy and regulations, I think we are moving forward, but we really need to be a lot more aggressive.

So, something that we’re missing and that would be really helpful would be a coherent, federal-level climate policy, whether that is, you know, regulatory policy, like we do for pollution, or a carbon tax or some kind of a cap would be really, really useful to have that. Aside from that, though, there’s just a million little things that need to be done. And a good example of something that has been done is Biden’s move to coordinate and streamline the federal approval process for offshore wind. So there are seven federal agencies that all have to be involved. And having them all separate and moving at their own pace is really difficult for developers. And so Biden has coordinated that, and that’s fantastic. At the same time, there are tens or more of local and state-level agencies and, you know, processes that developers have to go through. It’d be really great if we could figure out ways to coordinate and streamline those, as well, just as an example.

How does our current energy system disproportionately harm poor communities and communities of color?


ERIN BAKER: Well, unfortunately, in a lot of different ways. The one that we probably know the most about is in pollution. In general, polluting facilities tend to be in areas that are low income and even just disproportionately people of color. And this is true for fossil generation, as well as other types of facilities. There is kind of energy burden, the cost of energy. Blackouts—in that Texas blackout that we had last winter that killed more than 250 people, some research done by a colleague of mine showed that the long blackouts were four times as likely in communities of color than in predominantly white communities. And unfortunately, the energy transition won’t necessarily be any more equitable.

So, it’s really common in states to subsidize rooftop solar. And this is good in many ways. But the people who get the subsidies are people who own roofs and have sunshine on their roofs. And so, people who live in apartments and people who live in cities don’t really have access to this, and yet they’re paying for the subsidies. And so, we take the subsidies from everyone, including low-income people, and send them mostly to the kind of white, wealthy suburbs.

How can injustices in our energy system be rectified?


ERIN BAKER: There’s obviously no one solution, but there’s a couple of categories of things we can do. So, one thing that would be really helpful would be to collect data. So, we’re kind of in a place—it’s like we’re flying a plane in the fog, and we have no idea where the ground is, right? Our altimeter is not working. It’s really hard to do anything. We have very little data about energy equity issues. And so, one thing that myself and almost everybody in this field would like to see is more data because we can start addressing these problems when we know a little bit more about what they are.

Another category that I’m very interested in that we need to involve and listen to the traditionally marginalized communities that are most affected by the inequities. Right now, we often are not gathering information from the people who have the most knowledge. And so, we’re really interested in community-engaged co-design of, you know, regulations, policies, technologies and implementation. So, those are a couple of examples of the types of things that we can do.

What do you think of the federal and state targets set for offshore wind?


ERIN BAKER: The Biden administration set a target for 30 gigawatts by 2030, so just eight years from now. That’s a pretty exciting and pretty ambitious goal. Last year, the entire world had 30 gigawatts of offshore wind. So, we want to match the entire world. Now the world is up to 35 gigawatts. You can see that we are growing in leaps and bounds. But still, this is a very ambitious target. But given what I mentioned a little bit earlier about the pace of technological change, I’m pretty confident that we can do this and actually would not be surprised if we overshot this target.

The target, the goal of 30 gigawatts, though, is really important because it helps to organize what I would call the supply chain, like, all the pieces that need to get done for this to happen. So, we need people who know how to install offshore wind farms. We need special ships. We need planning for transmission. There’s just a number of aspects that need to be done. And having these goals really helps to organize that and make sure that all these pieces are there when we need them there. And so, it’s a very exciting goal.

What are the environmental costs and benefits of offshore wind?


ERIN BAKER: First, just to kind of back up, offshore wind is a really promising technology. The ocean has really good wind resources. The wind blows more there than it does anywhere on land. And it’s near to population centers. As we see, we have lots of cities that are up and down the coast. And so, offshore wind is really promising. And, because it is carbon free, it is really important in the fight against climate change. And regardless of which policies we use, it will reduce emissions, and it will reduce costs if we have offshore wind.

And so, some of the work I’ve done has shown that there’s billions and maybe even trillions of dollars of climate value in offshore wind. And kind of looked at the other way around, that we lose between $10 to $150 million per year per wind farm if we delay them. So, we really want to keep these large global environmental benefits. These can be balanced against local environmental costs and benefits, as well as other things like jobs or viewshed. So, for local environmental benefits when you build an offshore wind farm, the stuff underneath the water ends up creating an artificial reef and actually increasing kind of sea life in that area. So, that’s a benefit.

On the negative, they interfere with bird migrations. Birds—we find they don’t actually fly into the wind turbines all that much. They fly around them. But if there’s a lot of wind farms, that’s a lot of flying around and can be hard on the birds. And some animals, like right whales especially—they can get caught in mooring lines if we have floating wind turbines. So, there are local environmental costs. What we need to really do is balance these. And what we find is that these global benefits from climate change are not really accounted for. And it’s really important to account for those when we’re balancing it with all the other aspects.

Are you hopeful about our ability to address climate change?


ERIN BAKER: I am optimistic that we can solve climate change because we see that humans are very ingenuitive. And so, my work on technological change has shown that, in fact, once we have a goal or incentive, we tend to improve technologies much faster than we ever predict. And so given this, I think we can be ambitious. We can aim for, say, net zero by 2030 instead of 2040 or 2050. And we can solve climate change while at the same time stimulating innovation, fueling growth, increasing quality of life. But we have to set these goals, and this is really where we’re lagging. And so, to access the benefits of the energy transition, we really need to act boldly and decisively.

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