Arshad Mansoor, CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, is cautioning the Biden administration not to fixate on reaching carbon-free power by 2035.
Instead, Mansoor is calling on the administration to broaden its view so it doesn’t compromise the end goal, reaching net-zero emissions across the economy by midcentury, by focusing too rigidly on a granular promise made on the campaign trail.
This has been Mansoor’s message while in town meeting with members of the Biden administration’s climate team this week. One of the main questions he said he received from government officials is how to do the math to get down to net-zero emissions.
The Biden administration is in the midst of crafting a new national emissions target for 2030 as part of President Joe Biden’s recommitment to the Paris climate agreement. Biden is set to unveil that target next month, when he holds a global climate summit on Earth Day.
“When we talk to the administration, we say, ‘OK, what’s our goal? Is our goal reducing emissions from the power sector, or is our goal reducing emissions from the power sector, transportation sector, and buildings and industry?’” Mansoor told the Washington Examiner in a recent interview.
“Greenhouse gas doesn’t discriminate where it’s coming from. So if our goal is economywide reduction, let’s make sure we’re looking at all three sectors in a synergistic way.”
Mansoor has worked for the EPRI, an independent nonprofit group that conducts electricity sector research, often in collaboration with the federal government and the utility industry, for 15 years. He became the institute’s CEO just last year.
Mansoor is unfailingly optimistic about the United States’s ability to decarbonize the economy by 2050, despite recognizing the scale of the transformation needed. The EPRI’s research shows the U.S. can double the pace of decarbonization in the next 10 years, he said.
However, he doesn’t think the Biden administration should be married to carbon-free power by the 2035 goal.
“We need to clean the economy to zero and do it as quickly as we can do, but reliably and affordably,” Mansoor said. “That’s what we’re focusing on, and if that means the electric sector is 80% [clean] by 2035, so be it.”
Mansoor described decarbonizing the economy like a race among three horses, with the starting gate set at 2005 emissions levels and the finish line at net-zero.
The first horse, the power sector, is already racing ahead and roughly 30% of the way to the finish line, he said. The second and third horses, the transportation and industrial sectors, haven’t really moved much past the starting gates.
The most significant climate legacy Biden can leave is to kick the second horse, the transportation sector, into high gear, Mansoor said. The third horse, buildings and industry, will be the last to leave the starting gate but could benefit this decade from a massive innovation push to bring down the cost of technologies needed to decarbonize it.
Electrifying transportation is “the biggest change that if we don’t see this decade, we will not be even close to our ambitious goal,” he added.
Mansoor, who often drives his Tesla from his home in Charlotte to Washington, D.C., when he visits, is confident the sticker price of electric cars will continue to come down in the next few years. That cost reduction alone, however, won’t be enough to get electric cars in the garages of middle-class people, he said.
He sees a role for the Biden administration, along with state governments, to help encourage a massive buildout of electric vehicle charging stations. Mansoor suggested that electric utilities, which stand to benefit from the increased power demand offered by electrifying transportation, should play a coordinating role in helping provide the charging infrastructure.
Already, utilities in the Southeast are starting to move in this direction. A coalition of six major utilities is partnering to build out fast chargers along major highways connecting the South, Midwest, Gulf Coast, and central Plains regions.
Mansoor said Biden’s forthcoming infrastructure package, which the president plans to unveil Wednesday in Pittsburgh, should offer funding support in the form of low-cost loan guarantees or direct subsidies to public power companies to help them build out charging stations, invest in electricity transmission, and develop longer-duration energy storage.
It’s more than just “dumping money” into those areas, though. Mansoor said the Biden administration will have to facilitate coordination between federal and state regulators, as well as speed up permitting and siting for energy projects. The latter is a tricky proposition politically, as Democratic lawmakers worry speeding up that process would undercut environmental reviews.
For Mansoor, the biggest pitfall for the Biden administration would come if a transition to zero-carbon energy increases costs for customers or undermines the reliability of the electricity grid. Either of those would turn people against policies to curb climate change and put widespread electrification of sectors like transportation out of reach, he said.
That is why Mansoor cautions against trying to force the power sector all the way to net-zero by 2035, especially if it would increase power prices.
“Can we go faster? You know, if money is not an option, we can always go faster. Can we go faster and also be reliable? Maybe,” Mansoor said. “But our analysis is showing that going to net-zero economywide by 2050 is doable.”