This is the second part of Energizing a Real Green New Deal. In the introduction to this series, we identified the shortcomings of the much-publicized Green New Deal. In Part One, we presented broad, workable strategies and principles for incentivizing the transformation of the US economy to zero greenhouse gas emissions. Here, in Part Two, we will address how utilities, fossil fuel companies, heavy industry, government, and military operations can move to net zero carbon.

A recent study by the Energy Watch Group using computer modeling demonstrates that by 2050 renewable-sourced electricity can supply 90% of all energy needs in all sectors of the economy and the cost of the energy will be less than we currently spend. Other theoretical studies by NREL, IRENA, and RMI support this finding. However, Michael Shellenberger, a former renewables advocate, cites many reasons why renewables alone may not get us to zero greenhouse gas emissions. Not everyone agrees with his reasoning, but since the stakes are high, we will include his suggestions for a plan B to complement renewables as a source of carbon free energy.

Getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions can largely be a market-led transition because investing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, almost always lowers energy use and energy costs, as well as reduces the toll on human health and decreases pollution. Where there are cost savings, there is also a profit potential – allowing for market forces to lead the way and for government incentives to be modest, short-lived, and possibly pay for themselves over the long term.



Utilities are crucial to the success of a market-led solution, since the creation of a smart, carbon-free electric smart grid to supply all power needs is fundamental to achieving the zero carbon emissions goal. Electric utilities will be supplying and/or brokering all the renewable power for heating and cooling homes and buildings, transportation, agriculture, water heating, manufacturing, government, and military operations.

Utilities are already leading the transformation of our economy, because the economics are turning in favor of building new power plants based on renewable energy. Utilities in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, and Utah are phasing out old uneconomic coal and nuclear plants and replacing them with renewables. Iowa is a leader in wind, with close to 40% of its electricity coming from wind turbines. Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s major utility, is moving forward with a goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. One major roadblock for more renewable energy development in the Great Plains was recently removed when a high-capacity electric transmission corridor was approved to cross Missouri. When completed, this project will open access to huge markets east of the Mississippi River and should support rapid expansion of wind energy.

And the cost of producing electricity from renewables is beating out coal and gas. The unsubsidized levelized electricity costs, which include the cost to build, operate, fuel, and maintain power plants, range from $60 to $143 per megawatt hour for coal-fired power plants and between $41 to $74 for natural gas power plants. For wind, the unsubsidized, levelized costs ranges from $29 to $56 and for solar from $40 to $60. And utility scale storage batteries are now being bid along with utility scale solar projects – battery storage large enough to power the grid during peak hours after sunset.

The estimated $476 billion (in 2011 dollars) needed to build a smart grid that integrates renewables and supplies the majority of the country’s energy needs is estimated to yield $2 trillion in savings or earnings. Intrinsic incentives already exist for utilities to build out a smart grid with support from their customers. Electric utilities will be further rewarded as we greatly increase the demand for electricity by moving towards all electric homes, buildings, transportation and industry. Here are some possibilities for what can be done to further incentivize and speed that trend.

  • Smart electric meters are already being installed in some localities across the nation. These meters allow almost instant energy use feedback to customers. Utilities use them to support a variety of innovative rate structures that more accurately reflect the true cost of delivering electricity at a specific time. Through time-of-use rates, utilities can reward customers for efficient buildings, timely on-site power generation and the shifting of their load to off-peak hours through on-site battery storage. Time of use rates will lower costs for utilities and consumers, as well as incentivize home and business storage battery use, and help eliminate the “duck curve.” Any utilities who have not yet adopted this technology, should be incentivized to do so.
  • Grid-integrated neighborhoods and businesses equipped with rooftop solar and batteries become an asset to the grid by reliably shifting energy use off grid during peak demand and should be allowed and encouraged.
  • States, local power authorities, and, if needed, the federal government, can require any power companies who do not yet offer favorable rate structures for homes, businesses, and community solar projects to offer them. Doing so will encourage solar panels and storage to be profitably integrated into a smart grid.
  • Utilities can be incentivized to move to a renewables plus storage model that allows utilities to store excess renewable energy for use when it is needed. Some utilities are already using energy storage combined with renewables at competitive prices. So as technology improves and costs come down, the return on investment of this model for all utilities will be intrinsically rewarded – and any additional, external incentives can be eliminated.
  • More R&D can be conducted to develop and commercialize the best methods of energy storage, including new, more cost-effective, battery chemistries.
  • Tax credits and utility incentives can be provided for grid-integrated battery installation in homes, businesses, government facilities, and manufacturing plants.
  • Government, universities, and utilities should form an R&D consortium to help design and guide the construction of a safe, robust 100% carbon-free smart grid, using renewable generation, grid-level batteries, peak pricing, local battery storage, distributed solar, and community solar.
  • Since they stand to benefit so much from the nation shifting almost all of its power to renewable electric, utilities will profit from taking the lead in steering and supporting the transition to zero buildings, zero transportation, and an integrated smart grid.
  • Electric vehicles (EVs) offer a powerful opportunity to both increase utility revenues and stabilize the entire electrical grid. Current technology allows EVs to be integrated with rooftop solar and behind-the-meter battery storage. Aggregating thousands of these systems into a single virtual power plant will revolutionize the utility grid, slash energy costs, and increase system reliability.
  • Retired coal mines and coal-fired generating plants are prime locations for new solar farms. They have many acres of heavily impacted land that may not be suitable for other purposes, ample electric transmission facilities and corridors, and local economies in need of jobs.

Most of the above can be done voluntarily at the utility, municipal, and state levels. The federal government need only get involved to give a small nudge or, as a last resort, to regulate, if absolutely necessary.


A Viable Plan B

A recent report from IRENA showed that 90% of the greenhouse gas reduction needed from the energy sector can be provided by renewables. Another study put the figure at 100%. But if it turns out that, by some chance, renewables cannot satisfy 100% of the long-term energy need, as some critics maintain, another carbon-free energy source may be required. With the stakes so high, we would be wise to create a back-up plan to get us to zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Since industrial carbon sequester is currently too costly, energy intensive and risky, a different back up plan to consider is nuclear power, as it is already up and running. France and Sweden get almost all their electricity from nuclear power without greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S. today, 98 carbon-free reactors provide almost 20% of our electricity.

According to Forbes, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the UN Sustainable Solutions Network and the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate advocate a tripling of nuclear energy, requiring over 1,000 new reactors worldwide to stabilize global carbon emissions. Leading climate scientists, including James Hansen, believe expanding nuclear power is essential to reaching the goal. But in the U.S. there are major cost issues, ongoing safety concerns, long-term disposal concerns, and public opposition that must be resolved before nuclear power can be a viable alternative.

Current nuclear power plants should continue operation, as part of a plan B, but existing subsidies for nuclear should be discontinued and invested in an industry/university/government R&D program. The goal of the R&D program would be to develop a standard low-cost production reactor that is easier to build, less expensive to operate and safer. A safe long-term nuclear waste storage system must also be located and developed. This R&D program should include intensified research into and development of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) technology which is currently under development. It could be safer, cheaper, more abundant, cleaner, longer lasting, and produce less waste than our current nuclear power technology. Since small LFTRs can be cheaply built, they would fit well into a smart grid with distributed energy resources. If this research and test power plants demonstrate that nuclear power can be cheaper and safer than renewables with a lower carbon footprint, it could then be built out quickly on a large scale, if and when it is needed.


Clean Hydrogen for the Long Term

Another back-up plan could involve increasing R&D for developing clean green hydrogen derived from natural gas, which can be produced using renewable electricity, without carbon emissions. It can then be used in hydrogen fuel cells or used as liquid hydrogen. Carbon-free hydrogen may have applications in transportation, and heavy industry that cannot be met by renewable electric power. It may be especially promising for aircraft and container ships.


Gas, Coal, and Oil Business Transitions

Some fossil fuel companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell and ENI, are positioning themselves as “green” companies, and are beginning to invest in renewably sourced electric utilities. This positive trend can and should be encouraged by taking actions, such as the following.

  • Shift tax incentives from oil and gas drilling to more robust incentives for developing renewable models. Many fossil fuel companies have substantial cash reserves which, with” targeted incentives, would be more readily invested in renewables and smart electric grids with battery storage systems.
  • Incentivize oil, gas, and coal companies to provide training programs for any laid-off workers to help them move to the millions of new clean energy jobs that will be created – jobs which would likely be far more numerous than those lost.
  • The federal and state governments can incentivize fossil fuel companies to hire laid-off workers to decommission, recycle, and/or repurpose abandoned/stranded fossil fuel brownfields and infrastructure.
  • Former fossil fuel companies in conjunction with electric utilities can take the lead in developing and marketing clean green hydrogen. Derived from natural gas by electrolysis using carbon-free electricity, it will not result in carbon emissions, while utilizing our natural gas resources in a positive way. It can be used in heavy industry, military and container shipping and commercial and military aircraft, once the cost of producing it comes down, and efficient technologies are developed to utilize it effectively.


Manufacturing, Heavy Industry, Government and the Military

Shifting the country’s energy sources to non-greenhouse gas emitting ones as outlined above will help heavy industry, government, and the military reduce their emissions from buildings, operations, and transport. Here are some additional measures we should consider.

  • When energy consuming industrial equipment and processes near the end of their service life, they should be replaced with equipment and processes operating on renewable electricity. Clear, long-term policy direction,” targeted incentives, and a few government regulations will support a smooth transition.
  • High greenhouse gas emitting, energy intensive manufacturing processes may need to be incentivized to switch to low carbon sources of energy by government tax credits and/or with support for research and development for energy intensive processes.
  • Steel foundries can use an electrolyte process, using renewable electricity, to make steel, similar to how aluminum is made. This process promises to be cheaper and greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It and other energy intensive industrial processes, based on renewable energy, should be the subject of further R&D.
  • Federal, state, and local governments need to develop their own carbon reduction plans. They should prioritize the ones that pay for themselves with a positive return on investment, such as solarizing all government buildings and remodeling them to become zero energy buildings, making all new construction zero energy, electrifying their fleets of vehicles, and solarizing parking lots and garages to power their fleets.
  • The military has its own incentives for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, as they know that global warming is the biggest threat to future world peace and that relying on fossil fuels leads to supply chain disruptions, dependence on foreign powers, and geopolitical risks, such as mass migrations and wars over water and food resulting from climate change. The military should continue to take the lead in investing in and developing carbon-free technologies such as electric and hydrogen airplanes and ships, as well as heavy construction equipment.

By focusing on full use of intrinsic benefits, we can move utilities, businesses, heavy industry, government, and the military away from fossil fuels. The actions described here are only the first steps on a new, free enterprise-focused path toward a zero carbon economy.

Read our entire series inspired by the Green New Deal: