ICF‘s vice president of sustainable energy and climate explains the urgent decarbonization opportunity that exists in this moment, and how public-private partnerships can build a clean energy future.
Decarbonization is a tall order for governments, energy providers, and other key stakeholders. Now, in the continued COVID-19 pandemic, new challenges emerge that could threaten the progress cities, states, and entire countries have made to reduce greenhouse gases and increase clean energy resources.
But the pandemic “pause” also offers governments and energy companies time to dig deeper into their decarbonization strategies and ground new possibilities in powerful partnerships able to withstand the economic insecurities brought on by COVID-19.
Our vice president of sustainable energy and climate, Bill Prindle, recognizes the need to link technical expertise with local leadership to meet today’s new challenges and opportunities. In this Q&A session, he explains the obstacles we face on the path to decarbonization, examples of successful public-private collaborations, and concrete ways to bring mutual clean energy goals to fruition. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: What has been the impact of COVID-19 on decarbonization commitments?
A: There have been many impacts, but the most notable of these has to be funding capacity. Revenues for energy companies and states have taken a hit, falling about 10% in March and June. And it’s likely not to end there; revenues may continue to fall about 20% in the coming year. Obviously, given the prioritization of public health and economic recovery, decarbonization commitments have taken a backseat—with many clean energy projects and processes slowing down.
Q: Has there been any positive progress since the pandemic began?
A: Absolutely. Despite the pandemic, many state and local governments, energy companies, and major employers are staying true to their decarbonization commitments. In New York City, which has been Ground Zero for the pandemic, collaboration continues between the city and its utility providers, Con Edison and National Grid, on a deep decarbonization study. In Oregon, despite the pandemic and the worst wildfires on record, the state is pushing ahead on its climate action plan. Others, like the state of Michigan, are making entirely new commitments. In all cases, partnerships with energy suppliers among other stakeholders are key to achieving clean energy goals.
Q: What are the advantages of public-private partnerships like New York City’s?
A: There are a lot of players involved in decarbonization strategies, but despite varying perspectives, concerns, and priorities, there’s also a lot of common interest. A few key advantages come to mind. The first is that public-private partnerships save all participants time and money. Consensus is reached faster (and cheaper) when there’s no drawn-out regulatory or litigation process. Public-private partnerships also create win-win scenarios. Litigation, which tends to govern decarbonization decisions, means someone has to lose. Collaboration, however, means all sides have the potential to win. The last advantage of these types of partnerships is that they improve political sustainability because if all parties support the outcome of a particular decarbonization strategy, that strategy will likely survive changes in elected officials and policy priorities.
Q: How do the various stakeholders strengthen these types of partnerships?
A: Everyone brings their own value set, data, and expertise to the table. Utilities have incredible knowledge about regulatory issues, energy data, and system costs and operations. Cities bring to the table political leadership, like the city of Denver did in pushing to sign a memorandum of understanding with Xcel Energy to supply the city with renewable power. Meanwhile, governors and state legislatures can offer legal and funding authorization to match that political leadership. We see this in Virginia, where the commonwealth’s Clean Economy Act transformed its relationship with major energy companies such as Dominion Energy.
Q: Why is now, amid a pandemic, the right time to prioritize collaboration?
A: The pandemic’s business disruptions don’t have to bring partnered efforts to a halt. Almost all meetings are virtual now, which means consultations are more flexible, and more stakeholders can participate. Online collaboration platforms and tools, which worked well before the pandemic, are even more effective today, and ICF has innovated in the use of these platforms to enable better collaboration. Further, while there’s concern over economic and social patterns changing as a result of the pandemic, those changes can allow us to rethink old paradigms, now that we have the time (and opportunity) to ponder our collective goals, assumptions, and strategies.
Q: What tangible steps can public and private entities take now to move forward?
A: First, public and private entities must agree on high-level energy and emissions goals. Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to clean energy priorities like energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electrification. Second, they must be willing to engage in road-mapping and pathways-modeling projects, and prioritize the best consensus strategies for achieving those goals. And third, as collaboration processes produce concrete areas of agreement, public and private entities can develop consensus agreements that can be delivered to lawmakers and regulators.
Q. Any final thoughts to share?
The decarbonization challenges we face today are just too big and complex for any one entity to take on alone. That’s why partnerships are so critical. We see this theme playing out in much of the work we do at ICF, and we’ve identified some keys to success that all stakeholders should bear in mind. To go deeper into this topic, read our recent paper, public-private collaborations for cleaner communities.