Joan E: Eric Pasi is the Chief Development Officer at Impact Power Solutions, and joins me once a month to talk about green energy issues. Eric, how are you?
Eric P: I am doing great. It’s infrastructure week. There’s a lot of things to talk about and a lot of things to be excited about.
Joan E: Before we get to infrastructure, though, I want to get your reaction to the report on climate change that came out earlier this week where an international group looked at 1000s of studies that have been done all around the world, and came to the conclusion that “Yep, yeah, well, people are definitely causing climate change.” Some of it, like rising sea levels, may be with us forever, but there are other parts of what we’ve done that we might be able to undo. What did you think of the report?
Eric P: The report, which is known by its acronym, IPCC, which stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is put together by a group of climate scientists from around the world. Just as a background, it’s sponsored by the United Nations, who develop the reports detailing data behind climate change, and the findings must be agreed upon by the 195 participating countries before release, including us. So that makes the report the definitive source of information on the subject. And the previous report, which was released in 2013, influenced the creation of the Paris Climate Agreement. And so there’s a lot of folks in the energy community who were hotly anticipating the release of the report this year.
Joan E: Even for climate deniers, I think that things have gotten so extreme that it’s a little bit hard to say that we don’t have any role to play in this. I mean, we’re watching what is probably the second largest wildfire, the Dixie fire in California, just burning 1000s and 1000s of acres. And couple that with all these pictures I’m seeing of rivers that are half dried up and reservoirs that are 15 and 20 feet below where they normally run. I mean, how does anybody at this point say, “Well, you know, that’s not climate change.” What are the things that I used to hear all the time? “Oh, just because we have one winter where the weather’s extreme, that doesn’t prove that there’s climate change.” But now we’ve had winter after spring, after summer, after winter, after spring after summer. It seems to me overwhelming and something that just simply cannot be denied at this point in time. Is that the way you see it?
Eric P: Yes, absolutely. I think that there’s been some moderation on on behalf of Republicans who have traditionally stood with the fossil fuel lobbies and disinformation campaigns that we’ve been seeing over the last decade plus, and I think we both can remember back to Senator Inhofe on the Senate floor with a snowball in his hand, saying that the fact that he had ice was irrefutable evidence that climate change did not exist. But I think we’re seeing a lot of moderate Republicans, young republicans, come out strong on this issue. Having the private sector and the markets really lead the transformational change. There’s a lot of data and facts to help to support that. We are seeing corporate America step up in ways that we’ve never seen before on this issue. Google is really leading the charge on providing 24 hour clean energy to their facilities, which is something that’s never been done before. We’re seeing other groups leading in this regard as well, including utilities, who have traditionally been on the opposite side, are saying now, that clean energy is the most cost effective solution for ratepayers and it is reliable. We’re seeing with the adoption of these 100% or 80% clean energy by 2030 or 2040 mandates, as really being the future. That’s given cover to a lot of folks on the right who have been on the opposite side of this issue to say, “Well, if the markets and corporations are seeing this trend I think it’s time for us to kind of set aside the differences and get on board.”
Joan E: I know that my daughter and I did a bucket list trip, right before the pandemic really closed up the world. We went diving at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and they’ve had periodic problems. It’s the world’s biggest reef, but they’ve had periodic problems with bleaching. That is where the water gets so warm that the coral starts dying. When the coral dies it sets off a domino effect. When we were there in January they told us as we were diving that the temperature in the water was a degree or less away from the temperature where they know the bleaching starts. The people we were diving with said, “it’s good that you’re going on this trip now, because we don’t even know what this reef is going to look like two years from now.” Because we were teetering on the edge of the temperature that would basically kill off of the reef. It was really climate change brought home in a way that maybe the people who’ve lived through these wildfires in California, also feel it up close and personal. For so many of us, Eric, it’s been kind of theoretical. Yes, we see the ice breaking off in the Antarctic, but when you are faced with your home burning, or faced with the fact that this reef that you’re diving into may not exist two years from now, it’s just staggering the effect that it has on you and how it really creates this incredible desire to do something. I think that’s part of the problem. So much of this is human generated, but it seems so much bigger than what any one person can do. How does one person make a difference?
Eric P: You’re totally right on, Joan, with what your experiences have shown you. There’s climate injustices all around the world. For me personally, just as an anecdote, my father was an immigrant from Tonga and I had a chance to visit his home several years ago. The island that he’s from, Tonga, is in the South Pacific, kind of near New Zealand, and it is only about nine feet above sea level. Thinking about these folks, my ancestors, being really at risk for climate devastation, when they had no role in the warming planet and releasing all these greenhouse gases, is just something that drives me. I think that when people find similar stories that are in their own lives, that can give you the power to become your own advocate. I think what needs to happen is an uprising, like maybe we haven’t seen since the Vietnam War, where people are demonstrating and out on the streets showing their passion for this issue. It’s not just the humanitarian aspect, but also the ecological aspect to this as well. Needing to preserve what’s left of this planet for future generations. That is what drives me every day. I think folks, when they tap into that power, really can spend the time and energy on this issue that it demands, and I’m hopeful that we can all do that.
Joan E: Toward that end, as you mentioned a moment ago, it looks like we’re going to be getting a new infrastructure bill. We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, I want to talk to Eric about what this new infrastructure package may or may not mean for clean energy in this country. We’re gonna take a break and be back with Eric Pasi right after this.
Joan E: Before the break, Eric had mentioned this new infrastructure bill that the Senate passed with a 60 to 30 vote. We are going to find out what, if anything, this potential package will mean for the clean energy industry. Eric, is there a breakdown?
Eric P: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s two aspects of what’s happened in the last 24 hours or so. The traditional infrastructure bill, which was a bipartisan bill, was really spearheaded by folks in the Senate, like Joe Manchin, who said that we’re not going to be able to address the larger issues without at least trying for a bipartisan solution. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which included about $550 billion of new spending, did have some aspects that were pro-clean energy. That includes $73 billion for the electric grid and our infrastructure. That’s going to be super important. As we try to onboard the backlog of solar wind and other clean energy assets onto the grid, we need some upgrades to that infrastructure. There’s $21 billion for environmental remediation projects, like cleaning up Superfund sites and brownfield sites, and to sort out the abandoned gas mines which have become an increasingly big issue as companies have left these mines to essentially spew out methane and other harmful greenhouse gases. There’s money in there to address those projects.
Joan E: Okay, I know what a Superfund site is, but what is a brownfield site?
Eric P: It’s also a contaminated site. They’re almost synonymous, but both are having to deal with environmentally contaminated sites.
Joan E: We have the steel works plant over by the Chicago – Gary border. There have been lots of ideas from time to time about what should be done with that land. The fear of doing anything over there is about what kind of contaminants are in the ground. Would the old steel works plant qualify under this infrastructure bill? Is that someplace that could get cleaned up once and for all?
Eric P: Yes, absolutely. It could qualify. What we’re seeing for a lot of these superfund sites, brownfield sites and landfills is that a great pairing in those situations is to repurpose those sites as solar sites. What we’ve seen is that a lot of developers are placing solar arrays where they’re not penetrating or disturbing the ground. They’re using ballasted solutions, allowing the remediation of that site underneath the systems and then also just having a dual use where we, you know, we need this infrastructure. We need clean energy. There’s a happy medium or Mayor Between these contaminated sites and solar projects.
Joan E: I know this might be getting too far into the weeds, but I’ve read about this before, not recently because I think the technology is changing. We were having a discussion about infrastructure and Joe Biden’s desire to promote electric vehicles and somebody texted me and said, “Well, wait a minute, didn’t I read that these electric vehicles need these special lithium batteries, and that making these lithium batteries can be as polluting as refining gasoline and burning gasoline in an engine?” I haven’t read anything about that recently. I know that when electric cars first came to prominence that was a big concern. Has the technology advanced when it comes to batteries and how they’re made and how they’re disposed of?
Eric P: The production of lithium ion batteries is actually well established now, including recycling programs and repurposing programs. There’s quite a few examples out there, but what we are seeing is a move for some advanced battery technology away from lithium. Traditionally, China has been the by far the leader in lithium production. There’s actually some legislation that is hoping to develop some of those resources that we have in the US, including in California, but new battery technology, which would include zinc and iron ore technology, is plentiful in the US and much easier to refine. We are seeing the next generation of batteries, which will likely be coming later this decade, as more powerful, longer lasting and cheaper batteries compared to lithium ion, but lithium ion does have good processes in place for environmental mitigation.
Joan E: Oh, well that’s good to know. Because you don’t want to make the investment of buying an electric car and then feel like you’re not really helping the environment the way you thought you were in the first place. I know that. in China they’ve mandated that not too many years in the future electric cars are going to be all that they permit. They have a huge pollution problem over there. Do you think that the scales are going to tip at some point in the near future? And what point would that be? I read the car guy who writes on weekends for the Wall Street Journal. He reviews all these Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and it’s always fun to read about him driving these supercars. Oh my god, this has to be like four years ago, I was reading his column on the weekend and he said, “you know, guys, gas engines, they’re really gone. You might still be driving one, maybe the next car you buy will still have one, but for all intents and purposes, folks, they’re gone. That technology is gone. It is part of the past. At some point, maybe in the far future, or the near future, you’re going to be driving an electric car.” This is a guy who lives and breathes V8s and V12s. For him to say this, it really made me sit up and take notice. This really is coming, isn’t it, Eric?
Eric P: Yes, all the major car manufacturers have laid out blueprints for their future fleets and all of it is electrified. The question between them is just really how soon. We’ve seen folks as aggressive as Volvo coming out to say that they are going to have 100% of their offerings be electric by 2030 to GM and Ford, who are saying half of their fleet’s offerings will be electric by 2030. It’s really on a fast pace. Right now in the US about 2% of new car sales are electric. That’s up from about 0.1% just a few years ago. Then if you look at places like Europe, that number is closer to 8% of new cars being sold as electric and in China up to 20% already of new cars being sold being electric. This is definitely coming. Within the bipartisan infrastructure bill there is $15 billion for electric vehicles, $7.5 billion to electrify public transportation and then $7.5 billion for additional EV charging stations. We’re going to see this transformation really happen in a blink of an eye. By mid decade most folks will be opting for EVs because they’re just the better option at this point. You know if you’ve ever driven an EV that it’s just the pure joy of driving the car. It’s just so much more fun. There’s environmental benefits. It’s just a clear winner, at least from my point of view, to head in that direction.
Joan E: Oddly, even though I wasn’t going anywhere, eight months into the pandemic I bought an electric car. Here’s the thing that was the biggest surprise to me. Even though I wasn’t driving it very often, I was driving it to the grocery store or something once in a while and I still had my previous car, the gas car. For some reason, one time I went to drive that instead of the electric car and I turned it on in the garage and all I could think of was, “oh my god, this car stinks.” I never noticed the exhaust before, but now with this car, I smell gas, I smell exhaust. I had gotten used to not having that smell. And I realized, “Oh my god, I really get it. I understand now why you know what this car is throwing up into the atmosphere, because I can smell it like I’ve never smelled it before.” One of our listeners just texted this in. “Scientists were worried about an ice shelf on the Antarctic coast the size of New Jersey. The debate was between those who thought it would be gone in 20 years and those who thought that attitude was alarmist. One lone voice said that the ice shelf could be gone in two years and everybody said he was crazy. It was gone two weeks after the debate hit the press and that was 20 years ago.” So in some respects, I think a lot of us really have been crossing our fingers and looking the other way. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is the Illinois Path to 100 bill, because we haven’t passed the clean energy bill. I know previously, you said that there’s a soft deadline at the end of August, but we haven’t passed it. Exelon says that they’re going to be shutting down the Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants. So what is that going to mean for the state of Illinois?
Eric P: I think that this really steps up the pressure on lawmakers to get some type of deal done. Stakeholders, including the folks on our side, are hoping that a deal to make some type of bridge for labor and retiring coal facilities is going to be part of the solution there. I can really see both sides of the argument. We need to support a transitioning workforce in Illinois that is moving from coal to renewables, but every pound of additional CO2 in the atmosphere is really compounding the drastic effects of a warming planet. In my opinion, clean energy advocates should accept what’s on the table, which is the fossil fuel subsidy as a short term trade to keep low emission nuclear facilities online, and then also new wind and solar developments on the horizon. That’s my take on it. I think we’re getting to one of the Republican lawmakers who said that this is not a bluff. Meaning that we’ve heard that Exelon is rolling out their shutdown plans this month. We need low emission nuclear facilities as a part of the solution to combat climate change. I think this is a compromise that we all need to take very seriously.
Joan E: When the bill didn’t pass the first time around they said they weren’t waiting and were going to start the procedures. I think they were threatening to shut Byron down by the end of September, certainly by the beginning of November.
Eric P: I feel like there’s so much at stake. I think the fossil fuel subsidies are a mistake, but we all need to just focus on the larger picture here and get a deal done. This reminds me a little bit of 2016, when there was an extension of the solar and wind tax credits at the federal level. That was made in exchange for the lift on the oil export ban. We removed that ban, but it unlocked so much more in solar and wind development. That seems like a similar situation where we have to play ball and look at the bigger picture.
Joan E: Yeah, and while everybody would like a perfect solution, maybe in the short term, we have to settle for good and then work from there. I agree with you. I know you said before, that probably August 31st was a soft deadline for this. So let’s hope that next time you and I talk, we can say “whew, crisis averted. They did it!”
Eric P: That’s right. This, along with the other stuff that’s happening on the federal level, could lead to a very exciting end to summer here.
Joan E: Thanks so much, Eric. I appreciate talking to you about these issues. Thanks for joining me today.
Eric P: Absolutely! Have a great rest of the afternoon.
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