The Decarbonization Dilemma

Last weekend, I boarded an Amtrak train in Union Station and took the efficient 2.5-hour train ride from Washington, DC to my hometown, Princeton, New Jersey. The trip is not known to be particularly scenic, and most commuters keep their eyes on their books or phones, with the exception of the occasional sunset view over the rivers that feed into the Chesapeake.

What goes largely unnoticed are the multitude of fossil fuel power plants and electrical substations, a crucial component in the transmission and distribution of electricity to consumers, that sit unassumingly along the journey among low-income housing. These facilities and their associated infrastructure go undetected by most of us, silently delivering electricity to our homes and businesses, with consumers giving little thought to their existence. A longer look out the window, however, underscores the enduring legacy of fossil fuel consumption: a history of environmental exploitation and a disregard for marginalized communities.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment as our energy system undergoes a transformative shift from fossil fuel combustion to carbon-free electricity generation. Can the clean energy industry emerge as a force that champions both environmental progress and the empowerment of local communities? Or will the clean energy industry perpetuate a legacy of environmental extraction and community neglect, prioritizing its own interests over the well-being of those directly affected by its operations?

Since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), significant financial resources have become available to drive decarbonization efforts. While most environmentalists can agree that renewable energy infrastructure must be deployed more rapidly, how to achieve widespread decarbonization has formed divisions between environmental advocates and the clean energy industry. This division took center stage with the passage of last month’s debt ceiling bill, which approved the construction of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline and authorized various reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a cornerstone of environmental protection that ensures federal agencies incorporate environmental considerations and community input into federal decision making. Environmental advocates criticize the bill for streamlining the environmental review process and bypassing community input. The clean energy industry, however, views the reforms as essential improvements to the efficiency of the permitting process for renewable energy projects. The idea that environmental laws are hindering decarbonization efforts by preventing rapid clean energy infrastructure deployment underscores the growing divide on how to achieve widespread decarbonization.

This push to weaken environmental laws has raised concerns among environmental advocates, who perceive the similarities with the fossil fuel industry’s history of environmental deregulation. With ongoing technological improvements that render renewable energy technologies cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and supported by the incentives provided by the IRA, the clean energy industry is morphing into an industry capable of wielding significant political influence. As the industry has grown, it has increasingly aligned itself with the fossil fuel industry, embracing a similar inclination towards lenient regulatory frameworks and diminished environmental safeguards. This is evident as clean energy lobbying groups, such as the American Clean Power Association, push for environmental deregulation and target environmental advocate’s most effective legal tools for combating large energy projects.

The battle over whether environmental deregulation is the pathway to decarbonization is taking shape in an unlikely state: Texas. Thanks to its relaxed restrictions on energy development, Texas generated more electricity from wind and solar than any other state in 2022 by a wide margin, despite its ties to the fossil fuel industry. The clean energy industry points to Texas as proof that deregulation can drive the deployment of renewable energy and eventually outcompete fossil fuels.

Environmental advocates are familiar with and distrustful of an ideology that relies on market competition to slash fossil fuel production. Rather, they believe that constraints on fossil fuel development are necessary to achieve decarbonization. These constraints were omitted from the debt-ceiling bill, allowing both the fossil fuel and clean energy industries to take advantage of the streamlined environmental review process.

The science is clear: without swift action to accelerate the deployment of carbon-free energy generation, median global temperatures will reach 3.2 °C by 2100. However, we must navigate this transition thoughtfully, ensuring future climate benefits are not achieved at the expense of ecological integrity and social equity.

The clean energy industry has the opportunity to redefine the narrative and demonstrate its commitment to environmental progress and community empowerment. We must reject the fictitious dilemma of choosing between ramping up renewable energy deployment and protecting the environment and vulnerable communities. By embracing transparent and inclusive decision-making and upholding environmental protections, the clean energy industry can chart a new path towards a truly sustainable and equitable future.

RCC Stanback Renewable Energy Fellow – Isaac Bowlin

Isaac Bowlin is a Master of Environmental Management student from Princeton, NJ, studying energy and the environment at Duke University. He is passionate about ending fossil fuel dependence and ensuring equal access to clean air, water, and land.  Before beginning his Masters, Isaac served with AmeriCorps, performing projects of ecological benefit in the State of Washington, and developing a deep appreciation for the natural world. At Duke, Isaac works for the Duke Carbon Offset Initiative, informing Duke’s offsetting strategy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2024.