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The Future — It’s Electric! But Are We Ready?

Reducing GHGs can’t be maximized by simply building solar arrays or windmills. While we upgrade our existing power grid, we must embrace and scale other clean-energy technologies — including renewable natural gas.

President Biden has set an ambitious goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. It is the challenge of our generation and one of the most exciting business opportunities ever presented to the United States. But is that achievable?

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes — if there is political will and bipartisan government action to create policies that would incentivize new infrastructure investments through private and public partnerships, enact legislation to help permitting, and most importantly modernizing our nation’s antiquated power grid infrastructure.

And no — if we don’t have bipartisan participation at both the federal and state levels, can’t work through public and private partnerships to transform how our nation’s electric grid infrastructure is upgraded, and if we cannot invest the capital (both human and financial) to make those changes a reality, we will miss the mark.

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The other question is, how do we heat and power our nation while we wait for clean electrification?

What would it take to reach full clean electrification?

In short, a lot.

A report from McKinsey & Company states, “The successful integration and deployment of clean-energy investment will depend heavily on the availability of traditional, large-scale grid infrastructure — including transmission and distribution network, switching stations and transformers — as well as enabling infrastructure such as offshore wind ports. Those behemoths are not easily constructed.” In the US, Princeton estimates that the electricity transmission system will need to expand by 60 percent by 2030: “Achieving this objective would require a mind-boggling acceleration of the typical ten-year capital project timeline. It is, arguably, a century of work to do in less than a decade.”

The US doesn’t have just “the grid” — we have three disparate grids that power the whole of our nation: in the West, the East, and Texas. According to an interactive article in The New York Times, these three grids “… only connect at a few points and share little power between them.” As a serial entrepreneur and someone who spent a large part of my career in solar energy, I am uniquely aware of how difficult it can be to get “connected” once a solar array is built and ready to add to the grid to deliver clean electricity. In a recent article from UtilityDive, it noted that in research conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that: “The total capacity of energy projects in the US Interconnection queues grew 40 percent year-over-year in 2022,” and that “queue wait times are increasing as the number of projects getting in line has grown." In 2022, the wait time was an average of five years after completion to get interconnected. We simply don’t have the time to wait.

With these wait times for interconnection, and the sheer magnitude of changes needed for electrification — the task is overwhelming, but it must be done. I’m just not sure we can get there by 2035.

Yet, if we want to create real innovation in clean energy, all we need to do is look back in history. Vice President Richard Nixon was one of a small group of advisors to President Eisenhower that saw space exploration as a peaceful pursuit rather than a military pursuit; and thus, NASA was created and launched decades of discovery. President Kennedy had the moon shot; and although he did not live to see a man on the moon, the mission was achieved on July 16, 1969. The innovation and economic success created by NASA is well documented and amazing.

Yet, one of the most important innovations of the 20th century occurred under the leadership of President Reagan with the formation of SEMATECH —in 1987, Reagan authorized a consortium of US-based semiconductor manufacturers, in partnership with the US government, to come together to fix manufacturing problems and regain dominance over other countries competing in the semiconductor space. This partnership created jobs and saved a US industry; and 35 years later, SEMATECH is still leading the way.

Imagine if we created a consortium of clean energy companies to tackle the climate crisis from every angle, with centralized support from the federal government, and with the greatest minds in the United States? We would be unmatched in our success. It’s mind-boggling that we haven’t gotten there yet. The opportunities that could be created for new technologies and new jobs would be well worth the investment.

Great challenges need bold solutions; and this is a moment we can’t let pass.

What can we do in the meantime to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions?

We must invest in other clean-energy technologies along with the investments required to upgrade our existing electric supply sources. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) can’t be maximized by simply building solar arrays or windmills. We must embrace an “all of the above” approach and use every tool in our toolbox — including renewable natural gas (RNG).

According to the US Energy Information Administration, more than 60 percent of electricity is derived from fossil fuels — with the two largest being natural gas at nearly 40 percent, and coal coming in at just over 19 percent. According to the EPA, burning natural gas produces about 45 percent fewer GHGs than burning coal. Given the remarkable delays in interconnections for new renewable power, we will need natural-gas-fired power plants well past 2040. We simply need to switch to carbon-neutral or carbon-negative natural gas.

RNG produced by anaerobic digestion of organic materials is a carbon-negative, drop-in replacement fuel displacing the natural gas in the pipeline. In addition to a lower carbon footprint, RNG is created by taking organic waste and recycling it into clean fuel via anaerobic digestion — while also helping to reduce farm methane emissions, empowering regenerative agriculture, improving water quality, and creating jobs. This is what we do every day at Vanguard Renewables.

What can RNG do for a company?

According to a recent article by the Associated Press, there are 149 countries and 929 publicly traded corporations with “net zero” targets around the globe. One way a company can work towards those ambitious targets is to decarbonize its thermal load by offsetting even a portion of its natural gas needs by converting to RNG.

If we want to reach these bold targets, it will take bold action by the business community. One company leading the way is AstraZeneca (AZ) — a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry that has made achieving net zero a major priority. Global CEO Pascal Soriot believes that “the climate emergency is the biggest health crisis of our time.” I couldn’t agree more.

That’s why I’m proud to share that Vanguard Renewables and AstraZeneca have formed a first-of-its-kind collaboration to deliver RNG to all of AZ’s US sites by 2026 — replacing 100 percent of its fossil natural gas usage. Regarding this collaboration, Soriot told Reuters that “Doing the right thing costs a little bit more, but it is not punitive.”

It’s partnerships like this that make me believe that we can mitigate the climate crisis; there is no singular solution, and we need to take a renewable layer-cake approach to decarbonizing our world. As much as I believe in the electrification of our nation, I know that it won’t be 100 percent possible just yet, and we need to act now.

According to another recent article in The New York Times, the Energy Department announced a $1.3 billion investment in our nation’s power grid; but it’s not nearly enough — as outlined in a report that the department shared the same day. That’s why decarbonizing the thermal needs of companies with RNG is the beginning of a new, clean era. And we at Vanguard Renewables are proud to be leading the way.

So, what's next?

More partnerships across all sectors — working together with like-minded companies, cities, and states to address the climate crisis and the decarbonization that needs to take place to reach our climate goals is paramount.

We need to work together as consumers, business leaders and community advocates to urge our elected leaders to help catalyze new, clean industries and to help businesses of all sizes decarbonize. We must provide pathways not just for those companies at the top of their industries but for the smaller companies along the value chain to have the resources to reach net zero. This is where the government can help incentivize with tax credits and a myriad of other programs to help smaller companies achieve big results.

There is too much at stake, and we can’t leave anyone behind.