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The last mile on clean energy in the Northeast

The region is leading the nation's energy transformation. How will technology and policy drive a carbon-free economy?

The Northeast region is leading the country in the way that energy is produced and consumed, providing consistent, reliable power to a highly populated region while transitioning to cleaner energy. 

In New York and New England, for instance, coal-fired generation has declined more than 80 percent since 2005. While a number of factors are involved in the transition to clean energy, it’s clear that this wasn’t an accident, but the result of careful planning and ongoing technology innovation.  

Now, however, we’re at a critical juncture. With Northeast states taking on aggressive greenhouse gas targets in the future, how much more can we economically achieve? 

Transforming to a carbon-free economy is not an outlandish idea. In fact, it’s highly likely and given the climate science, there’s really no alternative. But we need to develop a clear roadmap on how to get there, and we need to do it now. 

Transforming to a carbon-free economy is not an outlandish idea.

But to build an effective roadmap, it often helps to know where you have come from and how you got to where you are today. A new report and video (in which I appear) by M.J. Bradley & Associates, "Power Shift," makes it clear that the clean energy transition in the Northeast was due to a number of factors. 

Specifically, the report finds that advancements in technology, low natural gas prices (also a result of technology innovation) and smart policy choices were the catalyst for significant advances in the regional electric power markets. 

In particular, smart policies have been essential drivers for this transition. Technology innovation and shifts in the region’s energy mix were enhanced by competitive power markets and more recently, the Northeast’s market-based, carbon trading program, RGGI. The interaction of these market forces and policies has created competition to supply low-cost and lower-carbon power. In fact, the Northeast states have experienced a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions in just the past decade.  

Unfortunately, some of the "easy" stuff has been done, such as coal-to-gas switching at power plants. So then the question becomes, as we move to tackle these additional goals, how much harder is that "last mile"?

The Northeast states have experienced a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions in just the past decade.

The good news is we have new technologies and business models that have emerged within the past decade (wind, solar and, increasingly, storage) that give us more tools to solve the problem. And —  with high-performance computing and improvements in materials science — tomorrow’s toolbox will become stocked with improved or new technologies we don’t even know about yet.

But on their own, these technologies will not be not enough. We need clear market signals to make the transition. As respected economist Susan Tierney, I and others say in the Power Shift video, clear and consistent policy signals in the coming decades will be necessary to provide the critical direction to meet 2050 state and regional goals. 

These signals will drive the innovation we need, from battery storage to electric vehicles to energy efficiency improvements and help our society continue to build out the new energy economy. 

In other words, if politicians and regulators set the appropriate framework with appropriate lead times and stability, the market will respond. Smart and motivated individuals and businesses will develop the technologies and business models necessary to help solve the problem. The last mile may be somewhat more difficult, but it will not be impossible.

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