Market Forces

Generating public acceptance critical to modernizing the electrical grid

Who, when and how to engage to build support for new infrastructure.

This post is the second in a series dedicated to the future of the electricity sector and new scholarship supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Each post is based on a discussion between select researchers and experts working on relevant policy. To learn more and join one of our upcoming conversations, visit the series website.

To make our electric grid cleaner, more reliable and more equitable, we need to invest in new infrastructure—and fast. In the effort to meet our country’s clean energy goals, policymakers will plan for new transmission lines, wind and solar farms and storage solutions, all of which will have an impact on the people living nearby. Communicating about these investments with the affected stakeholders must be done in a thoughtful and careful manner, or—as we’ve seen with other types of infrastructure projects—they can face delays or even fail altogether.

In our latest Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded webinar—which you can find here—we explored the barriers to public support of the infrastructure required to achieve a net zero electric grid as well as ways to engage with communities and other stakeholders more successfully.

The webinar, moderated by Dr. Elizabeth J. Wilson of Dartmouth College, featured panelists including Dr. Tanya Heikkila, Kate Konschnik, Dr. David Konisky and Amanda Ormond. Each of the academic panelists presented aspects of their research, while Ms. Ormond provided insights from her experience with infrastructure conflicts in the West.

Understanding constituencies—and conflicts

Dr. Heikkila’s research on conflicts around energy infrastructure found a variation in conflict intensity based on location, population and project type. Her analysis found that nonprofits and the general public tended to vocally oppose new infrastructure (regardless of the type), while energy companies were more supportive of infrastructure investments. Furthermore, “in high conflict cases,” Dr. Heikkila said, “people from different positions often talk past each other. So they’re not framing the issue in the same way.”

Ms. Konschnik’s research focuses on Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs), which she describes as “the most important players in the energy transition that you’ve never heard of.” These non-profit organizations control transmission in a region, but also create the rules that affect market values, and in turn, investment decisions in key energy infrastructure.

However, RTOs (and very similar organizations known as Independent System Operators) function largely below the radar of the general public, as their consensus and decision-making processes are held behind closed doors, with energy market participants being the primary stakeholders engaging in these discussions. Though the public has largely been absent from these conversations, stakeholder agreement is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, as the energy market has become more diverse, with greater participation of renewable and distributed resources, conflicts around the rules between these market players have only increased.

No matter the stakeholders involved, Amanda Ormond says one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers today is extreme polarization. While opposition may have always existed, the outsized influence of politics, social media, hidden hands and even paid actors can lead to the abandonment of science-based decision making.

Location and project-type matter

The type of project and its location can determine the intensity of opposition. While more than 60% of the projects Dr. Heikkila studied experienced low-intensity conflict, pipelines and wind farms were found to generate greater opposition than solar and transmission lines. More intense opposition was found in infrastructure projects located in counties with a majority of residents associated with the Democratic party (except with regards to transmission lines), while lower-intensity conflict was more common in counties with Hispanic and Black residents, raising important questions about environmental justice.

Regional differences also exist. Pipelines tend to generate more intense conflict in the West and the Midwest, while transmission lines tend to generate greater conflict in the Northeast, Midwest and the West. The South has lower levels of conflict in general.

Dr. Konisky examined the phenomenon of NIMBYism, testing whether the “not in my backyard” sentiment is as common in opposition to infrastructure projects as it appears in media. After distributing 16,200 surveys across 6 states and 14 projects, his team found little evidence of NIMBYism, as opposition and support of projects did not tend to vary with respondent’s proximity to them. What he did find was that people opposed projects if they were concerned about the impacts on environmental quality and climate change or had greater distrust in energy companies.

Process is critical

All of the panelists discussed the need to improve public engagement in decision-making. For Ms. Ormond, that includes early engagement, assessment and testing to give policymakers a baseline understanding of sentiment prior to hearings. This is necessary, in part, because of the emergence of paid actors and organizations that engage in astroturfing to either generate a crisis or the impression that a project is universally supported. Without that baseline knowledge, a policymaker could be swayed by disingenuous parties, she says.

Dr. Konisky noted the importance of listening to diverse voices in the decision-making process. “Government is not always great at that,” he said, adding that building trust in institutions takes time—a luxury we do not have. “This is a real puzzle,” he said. “We have to figure out a way forward to do both things well—to go fast but to also be inclusive.”

In some cases, specifically among RTOS, there is a fear of engaging the general public, who they often view as lacking technical expertise. That said, Ms. Konschnik notes the need for greater transparency—including posting meeting minutes, in order to increase public understanding of the process and decision-making related to energy investments.

Part of the challenge, Dr. Heikkila says, is that the act of engaging the public itself can generate conflict. We need to determine how to create dialogue in a way helps build trust and allows us to talk to each other in a product manner. Engaging early is important, but how you engage is essential, she says.

Explaining the “Why” behind projects

Demonstrating the relevance of new energy infrastructure is important in generating support. Drawing connections between major climate-related events like wildfires could compel people to engage in energy planning. Increasing the knowledge of stakeholders takes time, but Ms. Ormond has seen it build trust and generate greater support for a clean transition.

Beyond that, both Ms. Ormond and Dr. Heikkila noted the need to articulate a broader energy policy. Without a consistent, national energy policy, individual projects can suffer from a lack of purpose in the eyes of the public. However, Ms. Ormond notes that state goals of becoming 100% clean can also demonstrate to the public how each project supports these objectives, giving them a better understanding of how infrastructure fits into a broader goal. Demonstrating how individual projects can help us meet climate goals while ensuring a more reliable, efficient and equitable grid should be at the forefront.

Achieving public acceptance of energy infrastructure is possible

As we move towards a cleaner grid, we will be making significant investments in energy infrastructure. This will naturally cause conflicts and concern as individuals will be affected by these investments, one way or the other. However, this webinar demonstrated that not all is lost. As long as we ensure that process is inclusive, transparent and clearly demonstrates the social and environmental benefits associated with the investment, we can achieve a future grid that is equitable, clean and responsive to the concerns of stakeholders.

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Energy Justice and the Just Transition in the Power Sector – New Research and Policy Approaches

This post is the first in a series dedicated to the future of the electricity sector and new scholarship supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Each post is based on a discussion between select researchers and experts working on relevant policy. To learn more and join one of our upcoming conversations, visit the series website.

While scholars across academia, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks are grappling with transitioning to a cleaner, more efficient, reliable and equitable electric grid, bridging the gap between research and policy is critical to making informed decisions that will impact consumers, communities and the environment.

As we shift from fossil fuels to a cleaner grid, ensuring that no one is left behind and all communities can benefit is critical to a successful transition. EDF and New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law, with the support of a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, are highlighting some of the most exciting research emerging from teams funded by the Foundation in a series of webinars with leading scholars and relevant policy experts.

Our first conversation—which you can watch here—examined how to make the transition for ratepayers, utilities and communities equitable, so people and communities can prosper as we move to cleaner sources of energy. The conversation, moderated by EDF’s Lauren Navarro, Senior Manager, Regulatory and Legislative Affairs, featured a panel including: Dr. Charles Sims, Director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Pubic Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Dr. Roman Sidortsov, Associate Professor of Energy Policy at Michigan Technical University; and Raya Salter, an attorney, energy justice advocate and member of the New York State Climate Action Council.

Distributed solar adoption’s impacts on the grid and its customers

Dr. Sims led us through a recent simulation he developed of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), modeling the individual decision to adopt rooftop solar panels and the impacts this adoption would have on grid and electricity costs. His agent-based computational model allowed his team to examine which groups would benefit and whether any groups may be worse off.

One of their important findings was that low-income incentive programs have helped close the gap of solar adoption between low- and high-income customers. However, they also found that net metering programs, which allow solar owners to be paid the full retail rate for solar generation, have widened the gap, likely due to a cost shifting between the two income groups.

New opportunities for old mines

Dr. Roman Sidortsov discussed his research on the barriers and opportunities associated with using underground mines as energy storage sites utilizing the pumped storage hydropower method (PUSH), a key technology to achieving a clean grid.

Dr. Sidortsov’s project examined whether old mines could take advantage of upper- and lower-level reservoirs to pump water through a hydroelectric turbine to generate power using a series of different designs. Leveraging an old mine in Negaunee, Michigan, as a case study, they found that not only could the mine serve the surrounding county’s population of 30,000 people continuously for 3.5 months; it could also to do so at a profit. Dr. Sidortsov sees great potential for nearly 1,000 decommissioned mines across the country to be used as storage facilities, which are already electrified and connected to a transmission system; this solution can help achieve a just transition in communities that would otherwise have been left behind as coal and mining are phased out.

Developing just transition policies in New York

Ms. Salter shared current progress under New York state’s ambitious 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The law, which aims to move the state to an economy-wide net zero goal by 2050, includes several provisions devoted to energy justice.

In addition to the Climate Action Council, the law also created a Just Transition Working Group, comprised of justice advocates, labor representatives, utilities and others. This group is charged with identifying electric generating facilities that may close due to the transition, studying job and workforce needs and providing recommendations to the council for how to best handle the transition equitably.

New York state is, as Ms. Salter noted, a tale of two grids. The upstate region benefits from greater access to hydroelectric power and renewables, while regions downstate draw an overwhelming percentage of their power from fossil fuels. She and others on the council are looking at ways to improve transmission from upstate to western and downstate regions to take advantage of the renewable generation pockets necessary to achieve the state’s goals. She and her colleagues are also hoping to address the need for long-duration storage to fill some of the renewable gaps the state experiences in winter.

Connecting research and policy

Ms. Navarro asked Drs. Sims and Sidortsov how their research directly applied to Ms. Salter’s policy work in New York and beyond. Dr. Sims explained that he initially gravitated toward the transition to solar, due to the existing gap in low- and high-income customers’ adoption. “There is also the fear that utilities will have to raise their rates,” disproportionately impacting low-income customers. Avoiding this scenario will depend on policy action and a greater understanding of any potential negative impacts caused by certain policies encouraging greater adoption of rooftop solar; academic research can thus help highlight any unintended outcomes from policy adoption.

Dr. Sims also sees connections between the retirement of coal plants and the subsequent impacts on local communities and low-income rate payers in rural communities, who may face price shocks due to large-scale adoption in higher-income, urban areas. He sees a lot of opportunity study how different policies can improve conditions for lower-income consumers.

Dr. Sidortsov said his work was conducted with the transition in mind, as he specifically considered the layered benefits for communities who may have been negatively impacted by the shuttering of mines. He hopes PUSH storage facilities could turn existing liabilities into assets, so communities that have been overburdened by risk could experience renewed prosperity.

Panelists also discussed the importance of listening to community concerns. Ms. Salter explained that energy justice goes beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For mass adoption to take place, we need to consider aspects that may prevent communities from welcoming renewable facilities, especially as policymakers consider how some have already been unequally harmed by the fossil fuel industry.

Overall, this conversation showed how research can contribute to identifying equitable policies, but also the importance of having policy guide new avenues of research. When it comes to achieving a clean and efficient electric grid, we must think about the role that this transition plays in helping improve equitable outcomes, and whether policies may exacerbate existing inequities.

Looking ahead to stakeholders

The panelists’ interest in communities is apt, as it will serve as the next topic in our series. Our upcoming policy and research conversation, to be held December 16th, 10:30am ET, will examine public acceptance and governance topics for energy policy. Moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Wilson of Dartmouth, the panel includes Dr. Tanya Heikkila (University of Colorado Denver), Dr. David Konisky (Indiana University), Dr. Kate Konschnik (Duke University) and Amanda Ormond (Western Grid).

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How can the U.S. gas pipeline system support a path to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050?

An economist’s guide to filling in the research gaps.

Natural gas currently accounts for more than a third of U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions, but efforts to decarbonize the economy – in particular by replacing gas with electricity in a wide variety of critical applications – imply decreasing future gas demand and CO2 emissions from the industrial and building sectors as well as the power sector.

Resolving the economic and regulatory challenges that follow from this will require filling in crucial knowledge gaps about the U.S. gas transportation system – and how that market could be designed to support the energy transition.

An energy system already in transition

Transitioning the U.S. to a clean energy system is a critical step toward the long-term goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The U.S. power system has already taken steps in the right direction. More electricity is coming from variable renewable energy sources (VREs) like solar and wind, while coal plants are being retired.

But even when we factor in options like energy storage, demand response and build out of electric transmission capacity, gas-fired generators will likely continue to have a role in the next decades by providing peak and ramping capacity at times when electricity production from wind and solar is low or electricity demand is high.

This, in turn, means that the country’s vast network of interstate gas pipelines has its own role to play in the US energy transition.

The problem is that the pipeline transportation market was built to support predictable, relatively constant demand (e.g. industry and buildings). It is not currently designed to accommodate the variability of demand from gas-fired power plants which can fluctuate significantly by the hour – or even more frequently. Nor is the pipeline system designed to be compatible with other low-carbon fuel options or phased down as electrification increases.

More economics research needed

To reconcile this disconnect, we need a much better understanding of how the pipeline market works, and how it could work. Compared to U.S. power markets, the interstate gas pipeline transportation market is characterized by opaque operations and practices and has not been studied much by economists. This has limited the economic analysis available to support decision-making by policy makers and stakeholders looking to address this problem.

More research and analysis is needed to inform how design, regulation and operation of the US gas transportation market can be improved, and the stranded asset risk and associated distributional impacts managed.

To stimulate and facilitate new research in this area important to the US energy transition, I recently published an introductory guide to the U.S. gas pipeline transportation market for researchers and energy market analysts. It outlines the main market features and regulations important for understanding the U.S. gas transportation market.

The objective is to facilitate further research that will help answer questions like:

  • Who is, or should be, shouldering the costs of gas transportation infrastructure and bearing the risk of some of these assets becoming stranded in a low-carbon-energy future? How should such long-term stranded asset risk be managed in the face of electrification and decarbonization?
  • What changes are needed in the gas transportation markets to provide more flexible gas delivery services to gas-fired generators that provide valuable balancing in the power markets?
  • What role can hydrogen play in U.S. decarbonization efforts? How could a potential hydrogen market be created and which parts of the gas pipeline network would be beneficial to make compatible with hydrogen transportation, given potential centers of hydrogen supply and demand.

By publishing this paper, we hope to inspire PhD students, researchers, consultancies and market analysts to conduct analyses on this topic crucially important to the U.S. energy transition. Such new research would ideally generate policy-relevant conclusions on how to reform the U.S. gas pipeline transportation market – and next be communicated to  energy market regulators and policy makers to support decision-making that will facilitate the US transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

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