De-carbonizing the electric grid focus of 7th annual Austin Electricity Conference

This article was previously published in the UT Austin Energy Bulletin May 2017.

Market conditions will continue to drive a movement toward de-carbonization of the nation’s electric grid despite the rescinding of stringent anti-pollution measures put in place by former President Obama, noted panelists at the 2017 Austin Electric Conference. Experts drawn from academia, industry, government, and non-profit organizations engaged in a debate of economic, engineering, legal, and policy issues related to a steep growth trajectory in renewable energy that poses challenges for electric grid operators, regulators, policymakers, and industry participants.

Over the course of two days, conference panelists and attendees participated in a robust dialogue sparked by a series of brief presentations relating to four tracks: Deep De-carbonization Plans, Zero-Carbon Generation Technology, Managing the De-carbonization Grid, and De-carbonization Policy. The annual conference, now in its 7th year, is an invitation-only gathering of leading experts and prominent players in a rapidly evolving electric utility industry.

Conference organizers included David Adelman from UT Austin’s School of Law; Ross Baldick from the Cockrell School of Engineering; Varun Rai from the LBJ School of Public Affairs; David Spence from the McCombs School of Business and School of Law; and John Butler and Melinda Taylor from the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law, and Business.

De-carbonization entails shifting away from a reliance on fossil fuels for electric generation toward cleaner sources of energy. In some regions, the rate of de-carbonization of the electric generation mix is accelerating rapidly, driven by market forces such as low natural gas prices and declining costs for solar and wind energy. In addition, advances in technology have enabled greater integration of renewable energy into the electric grid, assisted by an assortment of state and local policy incentives.

Even in the absence of aggressive state and local policy incentives, the low marginal costs of wind and solar generation (combined with federal tax credits) have facilitated the growth of those technologies in competitive wholesale markets,” the conference program noted.

One theme that emerged from a discussion of various states’ efforts to aggressively transition to a cleaner electric grid was how decentralized forms of electricity generation will affect low-income consumers, many of whom cannot afford to invest in rooftop solar panels, energy efficiency measures, and other technologies associated with Distributed Energy Resources (DERs).

“Deep de-carbonization raises some very significant social justice issues that cannot be ignored,” one panelist noted.

Another panelist suggested policymakers should be mindful of the need to create rebates and other financial mechanisms that incentivize low-income consumers to ‘buy in’ to a cleaner electric grid.

“A key question is: will this transition only benefit people who can afford these things?” she asked.

For more, view 2017 Austin Electricity Conference panelists’ presentations.