Opinion: If the Goal Is Zero, a Renewable Portfolio Standard Is Naive

Energy technologies need to fit together to configure systems that deliver reliable affordable electric power when and where it is needed. In choosing a system design, stakeholders must evaluate whole system configurations to decide which technologies are useful, which are not.

Jesse D. Jenkins reviewed 40 system studies published since 2014 and found “… strong agreement in the literature that reaching near-zero emissions is much more challenging – and requires a different set of resources – than comparatively modest emission reductions (e.g. CO2 reductions of 50 to 70 percent).” What this means is that if zero greenhouse gas emission is important, the lowest cost solution may be to discard the technologies that were chosen to get the first 50 percent.

Society knows how to design systems. Engineers routinely build skyscrapers, bridges, massive military systems and marvelous Mars rovers. The same rational development approach is the quickest way to transition to reliable, affordable electric power with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is a good example of a three-step process.

State executives decided it was time to replace the bridge and set an immutable performance goal: the new bridge will handle so much traffic of different types. The executives then hired engineers to quantify the choices: high bridge, low bridge, drawbridge and tunnel. The engineers assessed the cost and risk of various options and recommended a tunnel. Stakeholders, through a multiyear political process, choose a drawbridge. $2.5 billion then produced a drawbridge, and everyone is content.

The rational three-step process is: set the goal; quantify the system options; choose one.

We stipulate that the electric power goal should be zero greenhouse gas emissions. A clean grid enables an electrification strategy (electric vehicles) to work. Zero greenhouse gas is a performance goal; it says what to do, not how to do it. It is also immutable. Fossil fuel is a finite resource, so sooner or later civilization will need reliable affordable electric power without fossil fuel. One value of an immutable performance goal is that it clarifies what to avoid: do not deploy technology that interferes with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Given a zero greenhouse gas goal, the next step is to quantify the system options. In the engineering world this is a technology agnostic task called a concept definition study. We know the technologies (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, storage, sequestration). The question is what are the different ways that these technologies can fit together to form reliable systems?

A concept model starts with a blank sheet of paper, ignores existing infrastructure and configures different whole system configurations. Then the cost/performance/risk of each system is compared. What do the numbers say? Based on these fact-based options, stakeholders can make the political choices, a technology preference and an affordable pace. Pace is a stakeholder choice, a balance between cost and risk, both climate risk and development risk.

Stakeholders can rationally choose whatever whole system configuration they want, after they see the numbers. Since the states are committing the resources for new generation, the states are responsible for clarifying the system choices.

Without the discipline to first quantify the choices, serious mistakes are inevitable.

While activists want action now, they have no experience upon which to base judgments of danger and risk. High electricity prices can cause the public to balk, to refuse additional investment and the clean energy transition stalls. This is happening around the world today. Germany seems to have become a long-term polluter. While Ontario, Canada, succeeded in cleaning up its power grid, the province now consumes only one-third of their wind-generated electricity.

The quickest path to zero greenhouse gas is to engineer the system: set the goal; define the options; then make the political choices. A renewable portfolio standard bypasses the first two steps and makes an uninformed bet on the solution.

This is not how mature societies build infrastructure.


The writer is a professional engineer who has led the successful development of major new military systems. He is a former president of a solar collector development company. He is now the chairman of the Future of Energy Initiative.


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  1. This is conceptually very attractive, but we have a very short time to get to zero. Where are the policy recommendations in this article??? Even investment in some of the “wrong” technologies beats doing nothing while carbon is being emitted at several orders of magnitude more than is sustainable. Therefore, I say, pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act. Make the investments and jobs and correct any errors after the engineers decide how to get to zero.

  2. I would agree if the transition was cheap, but it is not. The one for one replacement cost of the US power grid has been estimated to be $5 trillion* or $50k per household. Make a mistake and high electricity prices block addition investment and the transition stalls. The risk is that we become a perpetual polluter, just like Germany. With long product cycles and high component cost the quickest path to zero is rational planning.


  3. Slow progress as seen e.g. in other politically charged issues like health care and immigration frustrates a sense of urgency. As a co-founding member of Future of Energy Initiative, I can assure you that we are sensitive both to urgency and to the high risks of investing unwisely that put the goal of zero GHG emissions indefinitely out of reach. In Germany, consumer electricity prices have risen very high to fund renewables that now provide an impressive ~30% of their electricity. They chose to rapidly shut down their low GHG emitting nuclear power plants and replace them with cheap, but high GHG emitting coal units. Germans are resisting further investment in renewables to avoid further electricity price increases. They are stuck in a high GHG emission status. MD should not follow that path. By contrast, the Ontario, Canada electric grid has very low GHG emissions with modest wind + solar contributions because they get ~60% from nuclear and 23% from hydro. Their consumer electricity prices have gone up, but nothing like Germany. MD’s Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant e.g. can add another unit which would make a big contribution toward zero GHG emissions. While nuclear power is not considered “renewable” it is a low GHG emission power source and deserves objective consideration as a “Clean Energy” source. A formal concept definition study will provide a competent unbiased comparison of pathways to “zero GHG emissions”. MD needs to expedite funding and completing a formal concept definition study so that urgency is served while the lowest risk pathway to zero GHG emissions is made clear.

  4. The article said nothing about nuclear generation, and it said nothing about the time frame for coming up with a plan. Action is urgent NOW. Also, I don’t understand why we have to replace the entire grid when the issue is generation from cleaner sources.

  5. The reference to nuclear is in paragraph 7 of the article.

    How urgent is doing something “NOW” with generation technologies that are long-term unsuitable (or not-cost effective) for reaching zero carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity system, that can destabilize the grid, causing blackouts, and that may not be necessary, even temporarily?

    What percentage of Maryland electricity users will approve wholesale changes “NOW” without a clear understanding that the cost of the transformation is a better deal than blind funding of variable generation that cannot contribute to a reliable grid?


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