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Ahead of public event in Pittsburgh, StateImpact reporters discuss what ‘zero carbon’ might mean

  • Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front
A wind energy farm in Somerset County.

Tim Lambert / WITF

A wind energy farm in Somerset County.

An energy future with zero carbon emissions seems like a reasonable goal in light of the recent dire climate warnings. But is it even a feasible goal for Pennsylvania or anywhere else? And what would it take to get to zero carbon emissions? These are the questions being posed at an upcoming free public event hosted by StateImpact Pennsylvania, The Allegheny Front and 90.5 WESA. You can register here.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with StateImpact reporters Amy Sisk and Reid Frazier, who will moderate the upcoming panel discussion. Their conversation has been lightly edited.


Kara Holsopple: Is zero carbon even a feasible goal?

Amy Sisk: You know I don’t really know the answer to that question, Kara. I think that we’re nowhere close to that right now at this moment. There’s an awful lot of advances in technology that need to take place and probably some changes to policy to try to drive that technology and the adoption of more renewable energy, for example. That’s what we’ll be exploring at this event.

Reid Frazier: We’re having the event to explore these questions. They’re not really answerable questions. We’re definitely going to see people trying to get closer and closer to use the technical term “decarbonize” the economy, to take carbon emissions out of the systems that power our economy.

KH: Does zero carbon mean 100 percent renewables like wind and solar? And what are some of the issues that you’ll be looking at around the challenges to powering a grid that’s mostly comprised of renewable energy.

RF: Some things that we’ll be exploring are storage of energy, because solar and wind are intermittent – when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, no electricity is produced from those sources.

One of the big efforts right now going on in this sector is trying to find ways to store that electricity, maybe in a giant battery somewhere or by pumping water up a hill into a reservoir and then having it come down in the form of hydro-electric.

That’s one of the areas that we’ll be looking at but also improving the grid. That’s one of the major sort of pieces of infrastructure that have to be changed for us to really incorporate more renewable energy into our system.

AS: Nuclear energy has to be a part of this discussion. The nuclear industry right now is struggling to compete with renewable energy and cheap natural gas. But it’s a source of electricity that does not emit any carbon dioxide.

Another part of the discussion too has to be about carbon capture and storage. So you can have coal and natural gas-fired power plants that currently emit carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. But there are a lot of researchers working on ways to try to capture that carbon dioxide and then potentially store that underground. So is that technology feasible? I think it’s worth exploring.

KH: So we’re talking about the future or are we talking about 10 years 20 years 100 years?

RF: Yes. In Governor Wolf’s climate plan that he just announced, there is a chart that shows where all the carbon reductions are going to come in the future to get to that 80 percent reduction level by the year 2050. And just about half of the reductions in the year 2050 – they have no idea really where those reductions are going to come from.

We’re going to have to find some other reductions somewhere else even if we install solar panels, build more wind turbines, and do a lot of energy efficiency projects. So it’s an evolving timeline. Obviously we just had a U.N. climate report say that we have roughly 12 years to get our act together before really bad stuff starts happening with the climate. So probably soon now and in the future.

KH: So who are you going to be talking with on the panel to sort through these issues and what kind of perspectives will they be able to offer?

AS: We’re talking with experts who are currently based here in western Pennsylvania. But each has a different background and experience with these energy issues. Some have worked more locally looking at the local grid here in Pennsylvania and in the Pittsburgh area and working with utilities. Others have done consulting with other nations and looking at their energy and grid issues.

KH: What are some of the questions that you have as reporters who cover this issue that you’re hoping to get a better handle on from this discussion?

RF: I’m really curious about their thoughts about this new concept of a Green New Deal, which a lot of people have been talking about. It’s such a fascinating discussion.  Whenever you talk about environmental policy or energy policy, it’s really about the economy, about how we do things in life. So, the Green New Deal is really opening up to me this really fascinating discussion about how is our economy based. We have basically a carbon-based economy. How do we change all of that?

KH: And who benefits from it and social issues around it.

RF: Correct. That’s key. We saw in France when they tried to raise the fuel prices, they had the yellow vest protests and that could certainly happen in America.

AS: I’m curious to hear about solutions and the types of technology that are being developed right now, and maybe that are even being rolled out in parts of our country or even other parts of the world. And do those represent opportunities for other places to adopt?

KH: And the panel takes place at the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. Tell me a little bit about the venue and why it’s a good place to talk about a zero carbon future.

AS: First, let me talk a little bit about the history of it. Back in 1930, this facility opened as the Connelley Trade School and it offered education to Pittsburghers and people in the area – plumbing and carpentry and things like that.

The facility closed down in 2004, but it was reopened just a couple of years ago. Now, it houses a number of tenants both businesses and research labs and a lot of them have an energy and environment focus. This building is LEED Platinum Certified and so there’s a lot of interesting energy efficiencies within that building. People who come to this event will actually be able to take a tour led by staff at that building to see all of us.

KH: Well, thanks you guys and I’ll see you both there.

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