Understanding global change challenges: Energy transitions
This blog post is the first in an occasional series of interviews with AGCI workshop participants and lecturers engaging key global change challenges.
How energy is produced, stored, and distributed has undergone radical changes since industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century, with myriad consequences for society and the Earth’s systems. Today, as many societies seek to reduce the amount of carbon and pollutants released from power production and extraction, energy systems are again undergoing transformative changes.
In an interview with AGCI, Dr. Paulina Jaramillo, Professor of Engineering and Public Policy, and Co-Director, Open Energy Outlook Initiative, Carnegie Mellon University, shared some insights into her work and why transitioning from fossil-based energy systems to cleaner alternatives is important in global change research.
AGCI: How would you define the “energy system?”
Paulina Jaramillo: The energy system encompasses all of the processes to produce, transform, and deliver energy in useful forms for human consumption.
Most people think about the energy system and they immediately think of electricity, which is a major component of the energy system, but not the only component. The energy system also includes the production, delivery, and use of liquid and other fuels for transportation, industrial processes, and other end uses. It’s a very large system that we rely on and don’t really think much about or understand very well.
Why are changes to energy systems an issue of global importance?
The energy system has historically relied on fossil fuels, primarily coal, oil, and natural gas. During the Industrial Revolution, technologies were developed to extract, refine, produce, and use these fuels for useful purposes; the cost went down, and it was cheap. It allowed for the development we observed over the last 150 years. But fossil fuels are, in a word, “dirty.”
For example, mining for coal has a lot of environmental impacts. You are disturbing land, there’s water pollution at the extraction stages. Then when you burn the fossil fuels to produce power, you have emissions of what we call criteria pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide. These pollutants can affect human health and also the performance of the environmental system. The combustion of fossil fuels also releases CO2, which drives climate change.
Over the last 50 years, climate change has really grown in prevalence—it is a big motivator for changing the way we produce and use energy. But it’s not the only motivator. We are seeing all these other problems, with air pollution, water pollution. And although our technology keeps improving so we can extract more and more fossil fuels, they are finite resources. We have also observed geopolitical issues with where the resources are and who controls them. All of these combined are the motivation for transitioning to cleaner energy systems.
AGCI: How does your work relate to changes in energy systems?
PJ: I work to understand the technological and economic functioning of the energy system and the environmental implications of operating it. Increasingly I have been working on how we develop energy systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, Nigeria is a country of about 180 million people. They’re rich in oil, yet they import all of their gasoline: the crude oil leaves Nigeria, and then the refined products come back.
Africa’s energy system is very underdeveloped, but the continent is growing in population and needs energy. I’m interested in evaluating how we meet the energy needs of the continent within the constraints of global climate change. If we want to develop this energy system without exacerbating or growing emissions of CO2 and other pollutants, what would that look like? How much would it cost? What technologies would we need?
AGCI: What do you see as the most important part of your work, and why?
PJ: I think the most important part is providing information that is useful for decision makers. I’m not a decision maker. I don’t decide what we’re going to invest in. The models I run cannot predict the future perfectly, but they can tell us what could be possible. And from there, decision makers can say, “Okay, if this is our goal, what kind of policies could we implement to make this happen?”
“The models I run cannot predict the future perfectly, but they can tell us what could be possible.”–Dr. Paulina Jaramillo
For example, with the Inflation Reduction Act, electric vehicles get a lot of financial subsidies because there’s a long body of work that suggests that EVs are crucial to addressing climate change. And if we want this many electric vehicles to be deployed, we need to reduce the cost so consumers will buy them. It is clear to me that the Biden Administration internalized years of energy system research when designing the IRA.
All these energy models have also shown that we’re going to need a massive expansion of renewable resources. So I think the most important thing is doing the simulations to create information that can help decision makers understand what kind of decisions can support the pathways we think are important.
AGCI: What are some of the biggest challenges facing our energy systems today?
PJ: The challenges are different, depending on the context. In the United States, for example, we have a legacy system that was built over the 20th century. So we have all these power plants, we have the transmission network, we have houses and buildings that use natural gas. Now we need to transform that system to reduce fossil fuel combustion, and that requires retrofitting the infrastructure that already exists.
The system was designed to operate with resources like oil and natural gas, where you could control the output of power plants very easily. Now you have all these renewable resources, but you don’t necessarily control when the wind is available. So in the US and in most of the developed world, transitioning energy systems is really investing in existing infrastructure to adapt it to the needs of the new energy system.
In developing countries, particularly in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, you are building energy systems pretty much from scratch. Expanding that capacity means building a lot of new power plants, a lot of new transmission. But that also offers opportunities: rather than retrofit the existing power grid, you can design a new grid that allows for expanded use of renewables or electric vehicle charging. The challenge is that those countries will need a lot of energy, and they see the push to avoid fossil fuels as limiting their options. They argue that other countries developed because they had cheap fossil fuels, which are still cheaper. And if developing countries can’t use them, that makes building their energy systems more expensive.
I personally think that this argument is losing weight. Developing countries need support from international communities, and the climate agreements have called for investments from developed countries to developing countries. My hope is that the information we produce could help those countries with negotiations. Rather than saying abstractly, “Well, it’s gonna be more expensive,” you can say, “These are the technologies we need. This is how much it would cost. This is the financing we need. Let’s negotiate with developed countries for that financing.”
AGCI: What are some of the most exciting opportunities that you see in the energy sector for the coming decades?
PJ: Even five years ago, solar was still not very cost-competitive, and now the cost of solar has gone down so much that it can compete on a cost basis with fossil fuels. And that cost reduction is just crucial: then the argument that lower-emissions energy production is more expensive starts losing weight. There are still technical challenges though. If you build wind and solar, you also have to build storage, which we historically haven’t had. But I think the reduction in cost and the improvements in the technologies have been massive and really make things easier.
AGCI: How will changes in energy systems impact our lives? Why should the average person care?
PJ: Right now, we’re very concerned about energy prices, which have historically been very volatile. What happens in the global oil market affects us. It’s one of the main drivers of inflation right now. So an electric vehicle might be slightly more expensive than a gas-powered car, but if you get a loan, the monthly cost of your vehicle and fuel becomes more stable. These changes will actually affect the pocketbook. And there’s just more security: the US doesn’t have an energy independence problem right now because it is currently the largest producer of oil. But if you’re relying on countries that are heavily reliant on importing energy from maybe not-so-friendly countries, that puts you at a vulnerability.
The costs of climate change are real, and we’re seeing them now, not far in the future. There’ve been reports of billions of dollars of losses because of wildfires, natural disasters that are increasing because of our emissions and climate change. Humans have a hard time making those connections and thinking long term, but these costs are real. People are losing their homes, and they’re going to increasingly be at risk of losing their homes.
I also think people don’t realize that coal pollution kills thousands of people every year in the United States, and air pollution globally is a major source of mortality. If your father dies of a heart attack and his cardiovascular health was made worse because he was exposed to coal pollution, you don’t make the connection that it was pollution that led to the heart attack. So improvements in human health are a real consequence of transitions to low-emissions energy systems.
I think global environmental change—climate change, but also all its negative impacts in terms of water pollution, air pollution: these changes could be catastrophic for humans. We know that the energy system is one of the largest contributors to these negative changes, and we need to change the way we produce and consume energy to avoid the worst impacts. To do that, we need to understand what our options are, what technologies are available, and how much it will cost. And I think that’s where my research makes a contribution, in understanding those possibilities.
Dr. Paulina Jaramillo is a Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, where she studies how changes in energy systems impact society and the environment. She also co-directs the Green Design Institute at CMU, is a fellow of the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and Research at CMU, a research affiliate of the Kigali Collaborative Research Center, and was a Coordinating Lead Author for the report of Working Group III of the IPCC’s 6th Climate Assessment Report.
Using energy systems modeling and a multi-disciplinary lens, Dr. Jaramillo explores the social, economic, and environmental implications of changes to energy systems. Originally from Medellin, Colombia, Dr. Jaramillo has a particular interest in studying energy challenges in the Global South.