One of the unexpected side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, the principal driver of global warming and climate change. Factories operating at lower capacity, fewer motor vehicles on the road and a dramatic reduction in airline travel all contributed to greenhouse gas emissions plummeting 7-to-10% last year, reaching their lowest level in three decades. Of course, the improvement is a temporary phenomenon birthed under extraordinary circumstances. As the global economy gears back up post-pandemic, the downward trend isn’t expected to last absent major policy changes by leading nations.
The past year also saw a surge in renewable energy installations, including a record number of wind turbines and solar panels. According to The New York Times, the United States produced roughly as much electricity from renewable sources last year as it did from coal, a milestone that has never been reached before. This is welcome news to those who believe that renewable energy must replace fossil fuels as the primary source of power for the US economy over the long term. The surge in renewables is partly explained by the looming expiration of the federal tax credit for alternative energy projects, which we believe should be renewed and extended.
Automakers, too, are rolling out bold plans to completely electrify their fleets and power their manufacturing facilities with renewable energy over the next 15-30 years. When most motor vehicles on the road are electric, we can expect to see major reductions in carbon emissions from vehicle exhaust.
After four years of climate change denial, we are especially encouraged by President Biden’s move to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. As part of that agreement, the United States pledged that emissions would fall 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Under the previous administration, the chances of meeting that goal were slim and none. But in the wake of the pandemic, America’s industrial emissions are now roughly 21.5 percent below 2005 levels, according to The New York Times.
Global problems require global solutions and climate change is no exception. Yet it has never been more important to act locally to reduce our community’s carbon footprint. Our hometown power company, the Lansing Board of Water and Light, is leading the way, having adopted a long-term energy generation and distribution plan that includes a mix of natural gas and renewable energy.
Despite pushback from environmental stakeholders, BWL opted to build a new natural gas-fired plant to replace the soon-to-be-retired Eckert and Erickson coal-fired power plants. The utility’s new, 250-megawatt Delta Energy Park plant will emit 50% less greenhouse gases than a coal facility. We should note that the move toward relying on cheap natural gas is also the byproduct of the fracking boom, which carries serious environmental concerns of its own. Should the Biden Administration decide to get tough on fracking, the cost advantages of natural gas could dwindle, making renewables even more attractive.
In 2016, as part of its Lansing Energy Tomorrow plan, the BWL pledged to end all use of coal in its power plants and to deliver 40 percent of power from renewable sources and energy efficiency programs by 2030. Under an updated Integrated Resources Plan announced late last year, BWL will now seek to deliver 50 percent of its power from clean energy sources in 2030 and to be a carbon neutral utility by 2040. Completion of the new Delta plant will make BWL the largest utility in Michigan to generate coal-free power by 2025, reducing its overall carbon emissions by 80 percent.
We understand the argument that an all-renewables energy policy isn’t practical just yet, especially in an area dominated by heavy industry. Baseload capacity is still needed to meet the demand from GM facilities and even cannabis-growing operations that consume enormous amounts of energy. We appreciate BWL’s persistent efforts to diversify its energy portfolio to include solar and wind power and agree with their assertion — for now — that natural gas is the reliable power source Lansing customers expect and demand because it can be turned on quickly to meet spikes in demand or to cover gaps in production from wind or solar.
At the same time, we are firmly in the camp of those who believe we must continue to push for an all-renewable energy future. As large-scale battery storage technology improves, it will become increasingly viable to power energy-intensive enterprises like manufacturing with minimal need for coal or natural gas-fueled backup capacity.
We’re especially proud of the efforts this community and region are making to tackle climate change at the local level, especially the nascent Capital Area Sustainability Partnership, a new coalition of cities, townships, businesses, nonprofits, environmentalists and other stakeholders from across the region. With this type of committed community engagement, we have a better chance to save this big blue ball we call home for future generations. Let’s get to work.