When Trump resigned from the Paris Agreement on June 1, 2017, people in the US and all over the world were shocked by the decision which they considered to be short-sighted and irresponsible. When the Paris Climate Agreement was negotiated in December 2015 and eventually signed in April 2016, it was celebrated as a huge success. Does the resignation of the US as the world’s second largest emitter of CO2 now mean that this diplomatic effort was useless?
On closer inspection, it becomes clear that this will not necessarily be the case. As a reaction to President Trump’s decision, the governors of California, New York, and Washington founded the so-called US Climate Alliance which now has 13 members representing more than 30% of the US population. Jerry Brown, governor of California, is repeatedly called the “unofficial climate change ambassador of the US” by media, being a driving force of the movement and having drawn attention by his visit to China in the beginning of June to discuss climate change. Likewise, on a municipality level, US cities committed to the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda.
Those reactions on the state and local level show that there is a huge political and societal will to stay on the ball – and this is the decisive factor. States and cities have long set up their own agendas and policies and stress the opportunities: in particular regarding job creation, innovation, and, eventually, a healthy environment for current and future generations.
The numbers speak for themselves: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the electricity generation from wind and solar climbed from less than 1% in 2007 to more than 10% in March 2017. As the Guardian points out, jobs in the coal mining industry have been decreasing continuously since the 80ies while employment in the renewable sector has been growing tremendously. The Financial Times quantifies the number of people employed in the coal industry with 160,000 jobs, while almost three times as many – more than 350,000 – work in the renewable energy industry.
Those numbers illustrate that the US and some states in particular have become crucial knowledge holders. Many research institutions such as the National Labs financed by the Department of Energy and universities are pursuing edge-cutting research. Policy makers experiment with local carbon trading schemes, renewable portfolio standards, capacity markets, and different kinds of supporting financial schemes. The US has become a serious player in fighting climate change and I am convinced that, while the federal policy might decelerate the development at some points, it has gained far too much momentum to be stalled or even to be reverted.
Despite shared convictions in Germany and the U.S., however, I more often than expected notice a lack of knowledge of each other’s systems and initiatives. I admit that I can only speak of my field of electricity markets – but I consider that to be a major part of a true transition. My understanding is also that the common responsibility of all people working in the field is to preserve the world we are living in the best possible shape for future generation, but also to enable a transition as smooth and as social and efficient as possible!
That is a difficult task – the electric infrastructure is critical and of high value to people and economy. Change is necessary but experiments in policies, market design, or technology should be conducted with the necessary awareness of responsibility. The Californian energy crisis in 2001 illustrates in a frightening way what can be at stake.
Therefore, exchange across systems and among stakeholders is crucial and should play a bigger role. That said, the diversity of systems in Germany and the U.S. with regard to geography, institutions, and policies offers the unique opportunity to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of approaches and the preference of one or another under specific conditions.
I see the following fields where co-operation should be enforced to enable the transition towards a renewable electricity system:
Policy. Questions of policy cover electricity market and institutional design, support mechanisms for renewable energies, policies targeting emissions, etc. Policy makers and regulatory authorities should take the chance to share ideas and achievements (and failures) of implemented policies. Only an economically efficient, social, and well-organized energy transition ensures the long-term support of citizens and, therefore, its success.
System security. A system which is dominated by renewable energies requires new technical standards and innovative approaches to system operation. This particularly requires the co-ordination of decentralized energy resources, the transition from a spinning to an inverter-based system, and the efficient procurement of reserves. System and grid operators as well as industrial associations and regulatory authorities should share learnings how to operate systems with increasing shares of renewables.
Smart grids and data security. Experts agree that the future energy system will need to be heavily supported by information technologies. This includes new algorithms for dispatch, the local and temporal coordination of flexibilities in markets, and the technical coordination of all system assets. On the other hand, any data exchange and architecture must consider the potential vulnerabilities of the critical electrical infrastructure as well as data security concerns. The discussions should be held between technology companies and grid operators, but also policy makers and associations of consumer protection.
All the points mentioned should be accompanied by a sound and well-equipped academic research which drafts basic concepts, simulates actions planned, and neutrally evaluate results of measures taken.
I am convinced that transatlantic knowledge-sharing will not only help to take better-informed decisions on an infrastructure as sensitive as the energy infrastructure but also contribute to a closer transatlantic partnership. Potentially, based on rather technical cooperation, we will also provide the ground for necessary common diplomatic efforts for global initiatives, which we will doubtlessly need in the fight against climate change.