Measurement of carbon and carbon savings will be critical to our future
Our current climate crisis originates in the immense social and economic value of coal, natural gas, and petroleum products. Make no mistake, these resources are the reason our world is wealthier and healthier than at any point in history. The reason we are in crisis is precisely because of the value of fossil fuels to our entire way of life. If the upside of burning fossil fuels was lower, we would have solved climate change decades ago. That we have resisted thus far, and that the extraction and combustion of these energy sources comprise roughly 40% of annual GHG emissions, tells us that the transition to a clean energy future faces incredible headwinds.
Despite clear-throated urgency from scientists, ambitious technological innovations imagined by entrepreneurs, and a restive world wondering how to avoid catastrophic ecological collapse, the world remains as locked in as ever to its legacy energy systems. As we start to make belated investments in clean energy and other forms of decarbonization many of us wonder if we are already too late.
But if we accept the enormity of the challenge and vow to forge ahead, we’ll need to think critically about where and how to invest in decarbonization. We’ll have to make choices that make the most of limited resources. We’ll need data about what works. And as we distribute the logic of decarbonization to markets, through price signals, we’ll need metrics that tell participants which solutions make the biggest difference.
We see three critical trends informing our worldview around decarbonization. First is a transition to holistic energy management, anchored by a common carbon metric. Progress toward decarbonization of energy means that we might need to allow for short-term growth in grid-based carbon emissions, as we simultaneously reduce emissions in transportation and delivered-fuel carbon footprints, knowing that we will ultimately deliver a decarbonized grid as well.
Second is a shift from lowest-cost accounting to highest-impact accounting. Reducing carbon now will result in higher direct costs for our energy until our new systems scale. But these costs pale in comparison to the costs of climate change. Helpfully, GHGs are zero-sum. Either we are eliminating them or we are not. Impact accounting allows us to prioritize total GHG reductions instead of simply trying to reduce our energy spend as much as possible.
The third trend is the recognition that the value of renewable energy is location and time-dependent. Solar and wind have become more cost-competitive, but only when certain environmental conditions prevail. In some places already, solar is curtailed in the middle of the day. Wind that blows in the middle of the night is less valuable than wind that blows in the early evening. Demand is going to have to respond to intermittent supply. We’ll need to charge our cars and our batteries when the sun shines and the wind blows, not just when it’s convenient. We’ll need to invest in technologies that allow these decisions to be automated without sacrificing our autonomy.
These trends underscore an important truth. Measurement of carbon and carbon savings will be critical to our future. The centrality of these measurements means that they must be transparent and based on trusted data from grid operators, energy meters, and smart devices. Simplicity here will reduce transaction costs and animate markets. We’ll reach our most ambitious clean energy goals by enabling investments into the resources that provide the best pathway to a clean energy grid.
As we launch WattCarbon, wildfires are raging in the nearby hills, water supplies are dwindling in critical reservoirs, and smoke is stinging the eyes of millions of people. But as we look around, we see people and organizations trying to make a difference. We want to support their efforts by providing the data they need to be the most effective version of themselves. C’mon folks, we got this!