Discussions around today’s clean energy transition tend to focus on technological challenges and the costs and climate benefits of renewable energy. Yet the social and cultural implications of a transition to clean energy are often overlooked.
Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kammen talks about his research into the ways that the adoption of clean energy may impact society and, by extension, guide political discourse. He also discusses how taking into account social, economic and developmental realities could accelerate the move away from fossil fuels and speed electrification in some of the poorest regions of the globe.
Daniel Kammen is Distinguished Professor of Energy in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the director of Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, and a former science envoy for the U.S. State Department.
Andy Stone: Discussions around today’s clean energy transition tend to focus on technological challenges, and the costs and benefits of renewable energy. Yet the social and cultural implications of a transition to clean energy are often overlooked. On today’s podcast, I’ll be talking with a Nobel Prize Laureate about his research into the ways that the adoption of clean energy may impact society, and by extension guide political discourse. We’ll also look at how taking into account these social and economic realities could accelerate the move away from fossil fuels, and speed electrification in some of the poorest regions of the globe.
Daniel Kammen is distinguished professor of energy in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California Berkley. He is also director of Berkley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, and a former science envoy for the US State Department. Dan, welcome to the podcast.
Daniel Kammen: Thanks for having me on.
Stone: Dan, you run the lab at Berkley, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab that focuses on developing clean energy technologies that are appropriate for the social and economic contexts in which they’ll be used. Tell us about the lab and its mission.
Kammen: Well, I’m a physicist by training, so I definitely came to this whole area through the basic science of solar cells, the thermodynamics of combustion, the interest in what fuel cells can do. A variety of science to technology opportunities. But when I moved to Berkley now 20 years ago, I founded RAEL, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, specifically to look at not only this kind of science hardware side, but to look at how we can accelerate the adoption by understanding much more about the social and political contexts.
So we really try to look for clean energy solutions, but situate them inside the much wider story of what’s the prevailing interest. Is it a cultural city or agricultural community or nation, is it an area focused on mining or oil and gas and so the transition could be harder on the job side. Is it an area that has seen real damages from pollution such as West Virginia and parts of China. So we try to at least become aware, if not expert in that larger environment of which clean energy is going to be deployed.
Stone: So you in the lab are operating under the premise that the best technical solution isn’t always the best solution overall. Could you explain that?
Kammen: Yeah, I’m not sure it’s quite that it’s not the best solution. We do try to look at which technologies and the associated policies will most quickly accelerate the transition to clean green energy because we are unfortunately so many decades behind. But what we try to do is to look at it holistically. And everyone in the lab has a particular strength, whether they’re a physicist, a chemist, an economist, but we really try to embed ourselves in what we think is going to be the context.
And so for us that often means working directly with government officials or working with community or nonprofit, NGO groups that are going to be the implementing side of a new technological change. And we try to provide the research to enable local groups to make those decisions. And so that’s what I mean by this kind of — this environment in which these new technologies will be deployed.
Stone: Tell us a little bit more if you could about what a culturally appropriate energy system is.
Kammen: Well, I’m still trying to figure that out myself I have to admit, but there are lots of cases where the mixture of the scientific innovation and the context will present itself. So as an example, we have a large scale research effort in Borneo, in Malaysian and a little bit Indonesian Borneo around community energy. And this is an area where the long house communities upriver from the big coastal cities are largely run by diesel power that’s brought in by boat.
It’s very expensive. And the government is engaged in efforts to build mega dams, flooding thousands to millions of hectares of forest. And so that doesn’t make sense ecologically, it doesn’t make sense culturally, it only makes sense to financial planners in the capital, whether it’s in the capital of the provinces on Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah, or in Kuala Lumpur in the national capital. Thinking about the dollar signs of huge investments by China or the World Bank or others.
And so what we’ve done in that context is to examine, can the region meet the needs of all its citizens. So universal energy access in a place today where only 20% of the people or so have access to electricity. And meet some of those big investment and return on investment goals to the national government. Because if you ignore that, they won’t be interested at all. And so in this case we developed a plan for a distributed network of community solar, small micro hydro. Taking advantage of the smaller rivers, leaving the large rivers un-dammed in opposition to the government plan.
And so far we’ve actually had a pretty good record, where we’ve got the government to cancel some of these billion dollar mega dams in favor of a much more environmentally benign footprint of small upriver dams, distributed energy, and producing enough energy from those systems so that you can not just meet local needs which is what the people want, but also have a real business side.
A perspective where you could be generating enough energy to do industrial activities. And so that’s the kind of — a large scale version of this context where renewables fit in, but there’s always this tension with the existing goals around fossil fuels, mega dams, and other projects that are much more environmentally destructive.
Stone: So you’re taking a lot of elements here, you’re not just looking at purely the technical solution itself.
Kammen: Right, we always begin with the science technology. Do we think that, for example, a new type of solar cell has made enough advances so that it can be deployed. So closer to home, an example is that we used to think that you put solar on the rooftop of buildings or in large fields in the desert or in other areas nearby. The technological advances in solar now mean we’re in a world where there are quite efficient transparent thin film solar cells, which means that you can now reenvision the windows of your home, but even more impressively office buildings which are after all largely all glass today.
If you can make all of those surfaces, not just the roof, a solar collector, which we can now do, that changes not only the energy footprint of the building, and hence the city it’s in, but it also changes the opportunity to think about how much the infrastructure itself can become part of that green energy and really serve double duty. It’s the building, it’s the green, it goes together, but you can’t just focus on the technology. It’s also about design and construction, and how do you cost all that out.
Stone: You’ve done a lot of work obviously in the developed world as well as in the developing world. And one of the things that’s very interesting that came through some of the research that I was doing before we were talking was that you have stated that a lack of access to energy can deepen the instability of politically unstable and oftentimes war torn parts of the world. And you’ve gone on to say that bringing energy to these regions might help to reduce conflict. How does that work?
Kammen: Yeah, so this is a really new area for clean energy, and it’s one that my lab has a lot of partnerships on. We work with a spinout nonprofit that came from some of my former post-docs called Energy Peace Partners that tries to bring solar and energy storage projects at large city scale to very war torn areas. Energy Peace Partners is working in South Sudan and in the Congo and in Somalia and looking for where there are relief camps.
And we think of relief camps as just that, relief camps. But the average life of a relief camp is 30 years. And so we’re looking for places where people have been displaced out of cities, and building large solar and battery storage systems to power the relief camp, which often have very high energy demands because of needs for refrigeration and lighting and other services. And then hopefully when people move back to the communities, this will become a power plant, but a green power plant that we essentially move the transmission lines from going to the camp now back into the city.
And we have an example that’s being under — that’s being constructed right now in South Sudan in a fairly significant city, Malakal. We’re doing the same thing with about a megawatt sized plant that was just commissioned a few weeks ago in Democratic Republic of Congo in the city of Goma which is a very war torn, very complicated place with over 60 armed groups in operation.
And the hypothesis is that while the supply lines to bring in oil to these communities which is the former way that they get energy really sets up an opportunity for armed gangs, bandits, warlords to take over and steal that oil. One of the benefits of clean energy is that it’s distributed. You have to get the hardware there, and you do have to protect it, but it’s nonrival. It doesn’t mean that by this community getting solar, this community can’t. Whereas the equation around oil, petroleum, diesel, was always about some have and some do not.
And so this changes the mindset from protecting your supply lines for fossil fuels to making clean energy a bridge between communities. And we have examples in the Rohingya camps, on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. We have examples in the relief camps on the Kenya-Somali, and on the Kenya-South Sudan borders, where building distributed clean energy systems on both sides gives you an opportunity for everyone to invest in a shared future where destroying or trying to steal, and hence get destroyed, that clean energy technology will benefit no one.
Whereas it was quite clear if you could steal the oil supply coming in, the group that steals it will benefit. And so we’re trying to promote this overall concept, working with United Nations that is the biggest supplier of petroleum but also could become the biggest supplier of solar and wind and battery technologies. And because one out of 100 people on the planet is a refugee, either international or domestic, the opportunity for this kind of thinking is a huge change. And of course climate change will make this story even more severe, as more and more people are displaced internationally and within their own country as the climate shifts.
Stone: One of the very interesting things with distributed energy systems in very remote places is they don’t necessarily provide that much energy, but that energy is extremely important. Those first few kilowatts that a family may have access to, or a community. Can you tell us about how important that is? And we’re not even talking about refrigeration at this point, we’re talking about some basic stuff.
Kammen: Yeah, well that’s exactly right. The first few kilowatt hours of power you get are transformative because suddenly you can charge your cell phone as opposed to having to go by bicycle five miles to go find a charging station. Or you can keep your television or radio or just the lights on in a home. So those first few units are critically important. And because one billion people on the planet lack even that basic electricity, that first step is huge.
And when solar and wind were expensive, getting those first few units was equally important but it was a challenge. Now that solar is integrated into so many devices, you can now get solar on your calculator, you can get small solar panels that are on the back of sort of an oversized flashlight. You can get solar that rolls out like saran wrap or aluminum foil that you put on the roof of your home or simply wrap around a building and have power.
So that minimum unit of power is expanding because the cost is coming down. And this has meant that homes, villages, and communities can now think very differently. So that transition from that first little bit of juice to being able to power whole communities with clean energy mini-grids has allowed us to think very differently about not only basic services but also now about schools that might be providing local learning but also distance learning by broadcasting the signals, and students in remote areas can download and watch lessons on their cell phones. To being able to preserve a cold chain to get medicines to remote sometimes conflict areas by having a series of clinics along the way that are themselves powered by solar with battery back-ups.
So it’s changing the landscape, the problem is it’s not changing the landscape fast enough. Because while the technology is now there, we are not investing in this green energy revolution anywhere near as quickly as the opportunity is because we still subsidize fossil fuels to a massive degree. And the estimates are, depending whose numbers, we estimate today that between half a trillion and five trillion dollars a year are going into subsidizing fossil fuels, which is more than the entire annual investment in renewable energy. So we’re playing from a disadvantage starting ground.
Stone: Let me switch to the US for a moment here. So in the US the challenge isn’t about providing basic energy access, but about transitioning from existing coal fired energy, fossil energy generally, to cleaner resources. Kind of a a brown to green transition. You’ve noted that in the US we have our own socioeconomic hurdles to this transition, one of which is racial disparity in the adoption of renewable energy. Could you tell us more about this?
Kammen: Yeah, so this is something that really surprised me but it really shouldn’t have. And what we started to do was to work with Google and other companies that are mapping roofs across the country for a variety of reasons. It’s the era of big data, we love to collect this kind of information, but one of the direct uses is to look where solar is. And there are some states that have a great deal of solar. California has over a million solar rooftops, New Jersey has been very successful, New York, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas all have quite a bit of solar installed.
And so working in particular with Google and their Project Sunroof to map all of the rooftops, we looked at where solar is and then used census data to pair with that locational information to look at the income levels and the heterogeneity or the homogeneity, the racial mixture of these communities. And so the metric we used were communities that were more than 50% of one group, 50% or more are Caucasian or Latino or African American. Or communities that did not have a dominant group.
And so compared to those communities that don’t have a 50% or more majority, what we found initially was that in Caucasian white communities solar is more present, and it’s more present quite significantly than Latino and African American communities. So that wasn’t a huge surprise because there’s affluence related to it, it’s where do we see solar companies. But then we went a step further and looked at the income per household of those communities.
And when you remove the income effect, and of course the white community is more affluent than the black or Latino community on an average in the United States, but when you remove that income effect you still find that even for the same income level per household, solar is about 30% more common in a Caucasian household than it is in a Latino household. And it’s up to 70% more common than in an African American household. And so my household is mixed race, my wife is African American, so I’m not sure where we fit on the divide itself. But we’ve had lots of conversations about what this means.
And one of the things that we both talk about at home, but I also talk to the US EPA about, to HUD, the US Housing Administration, and in particular to many of the nonprofits that work on this issue, is that they report and over again that when the initial programs to seed solar projects, to invest in a solar entrepreneur or to help a business get started, there was just simply an unintentional, I hope — but there was a bias in where these seed efforts took place. And the environmental community in the United States has been criticized for being overly white. We’re trying to push back and diversify on that.
But what it’s meant is that many of the early programs to do energy efficiency and weatherization and rooftop solar have had this bias built in. And so we find that this huge disparity in who has solar is unfortunate, but it’s also a really clear lesson. Because it sets up exactly what my kind of laboratory does. We do this technical analysis, we look where these problems are, and then work with the states that are now promoting solar, the companies that are promoting solar, so that in the next wave we don’t repeat this mistake, in fact we find ways to make access to this new clean technology much more diverse, which to my mind is really the guts of what the Green New Deal is about. Not just an energy transition, but a just, or an environmentally justice based transition.
Stone: You just mentioned your lab again, I want to go back to that. How do technologists, the engineers and the others that work in your lab, take these broader and social and economic concerns into account? How do these considerations I guess change their work and the solutions that they develop?
Kammen: It’s actually a hard question, because there’s never kind of a formula for how you do it. It depends so much on the context. So if we’re working on an inner city project, what it means is that we think about how much transitioning to solar will for example change the economics of households. For rich people, their purchases of energy are not a significant part of their budget, but the poorer you are, the more energy becomes a real key part of the story. Of your overall expenditures.
And so that means working with households or community empowerment groups or city governments, finding ways to bridge the problem of the lumpiness of capital. After all, even if solar is cheaper than fossil fuels, which it now is amazingly in many places, there’s an upfront cost. And it’s not like going to the gas station once a week or paying your utility bill which you spread out over time. Someone has to pay for that rooftop solar or that energy efficiency upgrade or that battery to go in your garage. And so finding ways to work with groups that can provide capital to low income communities is one way to look at how the technology leads to an opportunity, but then requires a broader analysis of the policy options, the financing.
And so we do try to utilize those levers. And the students in my lab and the post-doctoral fellows, and the visiting scholars from Kenya, from China, from the US EPA that come and spent months to a year or more with us all try to look at projects from that broader perspective. So we really use the green energy as kind of the gateway opportunity, and then we work with these community groups that will provide the mechanisms to most efficiently but also most equitably get these technologies into use.
Stone: Let’s talk for a moment more broadly about the general transition from fossil energy to clean energy. You’ve said that it’s important to avoid becoming an ultimatum-ist in looking at clean energy solutions. What do you mean by ultimatum-ist, and why should we avoid that?
Kammen: Yeah, so this is a really hard one for people like me who come from the science side, because if you look at the given technology options there are some people who are rabidly supportive of solar, or rabidly supportive of wind, or rabidly supportive of nuclear, or some particular technology. And these all have really great benefits, but the goal at least in my view is not to replace an overly monopolistic fossil fuel economy with an overly monopolistic economy in another technology even if it is a clear advance over the downsides of fossil fuels.
And to me this really gets back to this idea that we were talking about in terms of solar, where diversity is a good thing. Before we were talking about diversity in terms of communities. Now we’re talking about diversity in terms of technologies. Because if solar and wind and geothermal power and sustainable hydro are all competing for the market, but none of them is dominant, they will all push and innovate hard. And one of the lessons that we learned from this past century of fossil fuels is that both utilities and the oil companies, when they were in times of high profit which was unfortunately most of the time, really stopped innovating.
Once they became the dominant entity in the market, they did everything they can to preserve market share. And it’s why you see things like the brilliant work by historian Naomi Oreskes in her book Merchants of Doubt where she looked at the role of the oil companies in denying climate science, even long after they knew that it was going to be a tragedy for us environmentally. And paying scientists more if they would come up with results that supported the hypothesis that global warming wasn’t there, even though the oil companies themselves have known very clearly since at least the 1970’s.
And so in this case, you had this vastly profitable industry, the oil industry, not only trying to defend itself against change, but investing not in research to make it better, cleaner, cheaper, more equitable, but actually investing in disinformation. And I don’t think that the new clean energy industries are likely to do that, but I do know that the more diverse and green the new energy industry is, the more one dominant actor won’t wield that kind of market power. And so diversity on the energy side is our friend as we move into this new clean energy world.
Stone: Let me ask you a question about the technical capability of clean energy. There’s been a lot of debate as to whether 100% renewable energy goals are technically or economically realistic, and this is particularly relevant given that a number of states have ambitious renewable energy goals. I’m thinking for example Hawaii which is shooting for 100% renewable energy by the year 2045, just 25 years away. My question for you is, is the 100% renewable energy goal realistic, and if not, what type of generation mix should we be shooting for?
Kammen: So this is a question that 20 years ago we could not answer unambiguously. You hemmed and hawed about what the transitions were, but today the answer is yes, period. Full stop, no footnotes, no issues. We know everywhere you could go to this goal. And it’s a different mixture of energy sources based on where you are. I work in remote islands in — off the Kenyan coast where 100% renewable energy likely means solar plus some wind and energy storage. I work in California which has the same goal as Hawaii, 100% clean energy by 2045.
And for us in California that means electricity and it means transportation. So going to a world of all electric vehicles or hydrogen vehicles made from renewables. And for us the mixture will almost certainly be dominated by solar with a big chunk of wind energy, with a healthy dose of geothermal, with a chunk of ocean energy. And those will be the dominant pieces in getting to 100%. Now there are lots of critical footnotes here. The pace of getting there may not add up for some places to successfully doing the whole transition by 2045.
And so what that means that while we definitely can do this 100% clean energy world, we also may need to invest in something which I was very resistant to for a long time, which is a dose of carbon sequestration or carbon capture. To give us more time for places that have started late, or have found that their resources, because they’re very far north and have very severe winters or don’t have good wind or don’t have a good policy landscape and really need to recreate, all those things can slow you down.
So there’s a growing movement towards being able to also sequester carbon. We know how to do this chemically. From the large scale chemical engineering perspective, after you combust a fossil fuel we know how to capture the C02. It can be expensive, it can be difficult, but it’s doable, and so there are opportunities to do that. I am still on the skeptical side of this carbon capture movement. Some of my colleagues are very much all in on it.
But I know of some forms of carbon capture that work today and have other co-benefits. And one of the simplest ones is reinvesting in growing in healthy forests, both temperate forests, tropical forests. Healthier marine ecosystems, healthier and more sustainable agriculture. All of these are opportunities to use biological photosynthesis as a way to capture carbon and to store it underground. Plants do it naturally in roots. We can accelerate the process by putting more carbon into the soils, we can accelerate the process of carbon being captured by the oceans.
So all of these are a low tech way of capturing carbon. And in terms of my research I would say I am all in on those biological versions. I still remain a skeptic around our ability to do well large scale industrial carbon capture, which has become a big thing now.
Stone: Kind of geologic storage?
Kammen: Geologic storage, pulling it underground, putting it in former mines, pulling it out of the air. These are all things we can technically do, and we may well need to do them, but these are what I would describe the tail and not the dog. We need to lead and invest in the dog, which is the renewable energy, and then invest in these things as small supplements as needed. And unfortunately there are people who see the tail wagging the dog, because it’s technically interesting, it’s a new area.
They are fixated on these carbon removal, carbon sequestration, I’m not saying we don’t want to learn about them and have this ready, but today every dollar that we put into trying to deploy these things versus deploying the green energy options is an opportunity cost. And so I weight my equation much more toward deploying green than in the carbon removal side. But I definitely recognize that because we’ve been so slow at this transition, at the state, national, and international level, that we are likely to need a dose of this, which we also call sometimes the ability to go carbon negative.
Even if we replace all fossil fuels with renewables, which our analysis shows we can clearly do, we may need to draw some carbon out of the system to correct for our past over-emissions. And so there is a real gray area in terms of how strongly do you go into these carbon capture technologies. But it’s clear that the 100% clean energy goal today is achievable. And our analysis shows, and California and New York state and Hawaii and New Mexico and Washington state, they are all committed with settled laws today to get there.
Stone: Your lab has developed — your lab at Berkley has developed a software program called SWITCH, I think that’s an acronym, to help policy makers and electric grid operators to model and develop clean electric grids at the lowest possible cost. There are quite a few of these models that already exist or are out there, though yours is unique as I understand in terms of the number of variables that it takes into account, including many of the social variables that we’ve been talking about. Can you tell us about the model and the factors that it takes into consideration?
Kammen: So SWITCH is a model our lab built almost a decade ago. It stands roughly for Solar and Wind Integrated with Transmission and Conventional Power, or SWITCH. And it is a — what we call a power systems model. So it’s a model that looks at every transmission line, every power plant that exists today, and uses those assets to meet demand. It’s kind of like a big game of Risk, where you move the assets around, you position transmission lines, both AC lines like we have today, direct current lines that we have a few of today in the United States, and they have many more in China.
We position where power plants would be. We look at their operating characteristics. All designed to both meet the current demand in a given area, that could be a city or a state or a region, it’s often a region that links together. And also puts energy into storage so that we can both deal with the lack of solar generation at night, or the lack of wind generation during the summer lulls that happens in some places. So we use this as a planning tool.
Technically it doesn’t have a social component, but what we do is look at policies from that perspective, and we examine in what ways can existing policies in New York state, in Pennsylvania, in California and Hawaii be tailored so that they push for more clean energy in the system. And then we analyze where do we need transmission, which energy efficiency programs, which energy retrofit programs would make most sense in that overall equation. And we use SWITCH as an open source platform, we just give it away to governments like the government in Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Nicaragua, China, Bangladesh.
We simply provide the model and say, “We need to work with your ministries and your community groups to populate it with the data. And look at your current policies and then policies that these groups or we might propose to accelerate the adoption of energy storage.” Or geothermal power in a place like Kenya that is currently the leader in geothermal, and sees it as an opportunity to never need to go to fossil fuels if they build up their solar, wind, and geothermal resources.
SWITCH is a platform to think through those types of decisions, and because RAEL is so focused on this justice angle, we then try to look very carefully at how do we not just provide enough power, but to make sure that the infrastructure needed to distribute it will bring it not just to the richest suburbs of New York City or of Nairobi, but also the lowest income areas. And how do you build out that capacity at the same time that you’re making these large scale decisions around energy generation.
Stone: You know, one of the things that came to mind as you were talking about that is here in the United States obviously high voltage long distance power lines would be great for balancing renewables, right? But one of the problems is you can’t get those lines built because of Nimbyism. If it goes across one state but that state doesn’t benefit, nobody in the state wants it and the line doesn’t get built. Does the model somehow take in those political considerations and possible political roadblocks into account?
Kammen: SWITCH provides the technical platform to look at those choices, but there is no kind of social button or lever in it. What we do is to do our best job to code that in. So when we look at long distance power transmission, we look at the roots that those transmission lines could take to bring the power most efficiently with the least disruption. So for example, we have algorithms where we look at the opportunities to follow existing transmission lines as a least impactful opportunity, or to follow train lines where we already have human made disruptions.
We put in penalty factors if there was a need to cross, for example, a river or a national park or a community, to look at where the routing would be to avoid that. So we do a technical equivalent, but we always used SWITCH to open up opportunities. And then we sit down and look quite hard at what are the range of other issues that go in. So there are big cities around the country that certainly need power, and so these large transmission lines from large solar or wind resources make a lot of sense.
But there’s also how much of a big city, even New York or Los Angeles, its own energy could be met within the city boundaries by for example solarizing all of the buildings. Or putting in other energy storage technologies. And so we look at that mixture and then trade off between making the large scale grid stronger and larger versus making more and more distributed generation at the level of households, individual blocks, cities, and whole states. And so we really try to play that back and forth, and that’s where the partnership with planning agencies at the local level, community groups, tribal groups, all end up being critically useful so that we look at what the impacts will be. Both on the good side of bringing more clean energy, but also where the impacts will be of that infrastructure.
Stone: Before we finish up I want to go to the issue of energy politics transition debate in this country. Earlier on you mentioned the Green New Deal which is about obviously a transition of energy systems, but also about an equitable transition. What policies, and this is going to be a broad question, but what policy solutions would you like to see at the national or level levels to ensure that the transition to clean energy is an equitable one?
Kammen: Yeah, there’s a lot of pieces to that obviously, and no single policy solves it. We like to say in the field, Al Gore became famous for saying, “There’s no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot.” And so it’s a range of opportunities. So for me the mixture of things that makes most sense is to have both some top down policies to adjust our energy system, and then arrange bottom up policies. And so the top down one that some US states and regions have, California and the Northeast have a carbon price in place through a cap and trade system.
And I would like to see a version of that nationwide because even though most experts think we’re not going to fix the climate story just with a price on carbon, it sure is a critical feature to reset the dialogue and have every industry from an energy producer to banking to home owners, all looking at what the carbon impacts of their decisions will be. As a way not only to make carbon a currency in our thinking which it has to be, but also as a way to produce revenue so that we can address the second part of the question, and that is we need to do more research, we need to make batteries cheaper, we need to make the building materials cheaper, we need to be able to invest in larger and more distributed solar, wind, geothermal, energy efficiency, a whole range of things.
So a carbon price allows us to harvest income from that market. In California, we have a carbon market today. The price of carbon is about $20 US a ton. And most critically, California wrote into its current climate law that 35% or more of the money that the state brings in from that must be spent on environmentally and socially disadvantaged communities. So it’s built environmental justice into the basic equation.
Stone: Can you tell me what projects does that money go towards specifically?
Kammen: So it’s really exciting, that goes to the wide range of things that you would sort of expect. It goes to initially doing monitoring so that we can know what the pollution is in lower income communities, it goes into providing solar loans and rebates for low income communities, both residents as an industry. It goes to installing electric vehicle charging in underserved areas, because while the affluent typically buy an electric vehicle and put a charger in their home, if you’re a renter or if you’re itinerant, you don’t have that opportunity.
So publicly available charging stations for subsidized electric vehicles are part in parcel of how California is using that money today, to not only make it a green deal but to make it an equitable or a just Green New Deal. And that’s an example of a macro policy that has some very grassroots impacts in exactly the way that I am certainly hoping that all of the Democratic candidates, I’d like to think all the candidates for President, but I’m right now only thinking for the Democratic side, will embrace. And that’s a high level policy.
And then you get the localized policies. We have initiatives that are run by city governments and by nonprofit groups to build low income housing where the utility bill for those residents goes away. You build a home, make it very energy efficient, install solar, so that instead of having a monthly energy bill, now we have a home that really does not have such a bill because we effectively paid for that hardware up front when the home was built. So that’s an example of a socially transformative, a hugely progressive opportunity because those low income residents are of course after all the ones that are most impacted by high utility bills. Very high heating bills in the winter, air conditioning bills in the summer.
By building 100% green homes from the beginning, you can change that. So that’s a local example. Another very large example is agriculture is a huge use of water in the country. It’s hugely profitable, it employs a great number of people, but we can do agriculture very differently. And so I worked initially with Washington Governor Insley, and now Presidential candidate Steyer and Presidential candidate Sanders on aspects of a carbon farming bill, so that one element of the story is that we can invest in farming that is carbon smart.
There is farming practices that use much less fertilizer and pesticide, less irrigation, that bury carbon underground. All of these are appropriate for different crops in different areas, but the Department of Agriculture which has a wonderful extension program that already subsidizes a whole variety of farm activities can be the vehicle to provide income for farmers for these climate smart activities.
And this is an example of a very grassroots effort that does need both the state and national infrastructures to bring it to people. And so it’s this very large mix, going from these carbon policies at one level, to renewable energy content standards, so called RPS, so that we have a certain fraction of renewable energy in the mix in every state. But then also these local ones that reward green decisions by farmers and by businesses and by industrial groups to really make that transition one where they’re getting not just green services but they’re getting actually better services out of the energy choices that we make in the future.
Stone: Let me ask you a final question. What’s next in your abundant research agenda?
Kammen: Well it’s a pretty exciting time because the clean energy science and technology revolution is really in full swing. So we’re working very hard on some new energy storage technologies. We’re also working with some more basic labs, because I would say our lab does more integration work, on very novel forms of storage. Moving away from lithium ion to liquid batteries, and to storing energy by literally pumping rock and other things uphill. And we’re also working right now with communities around the world on their efforts to launch the most effective near term policies such as investing in solar, investing in distributed hardware so that communities don’t need to rely on long distance transmission. But this also leads into this wider political dialogue.
And one of the most exciting aspects of it has been the youth movement.The Greta Thunberg Fridays for Future, Extinction Revolution effort has really highlighted the international inequalities in our energy system, and the degree to which while we’re very concerned about energy justice in the US, this is also an international story. And so finding the opportunities to work with both local governments in Kenya, in Bangladesh, in South Sudan, but also United Nations, the World Bank, the international players, so that we don’t wait for the energy transition to be largely for the rich and then trickle down to lower income communities.
But that we are equally accelerating both income — sort of all the income levels in the equation. And that’s really where my lab will be going for the next couple of years. And we try to both do the research and really engage with different stakeholder groups. And so the laboratory website is RAEL.Berkley.edu, where we put academic papers but also video feeds, blogs, a variety of things. And we tweet once or twice a day under my name. So the Twitter handle for the lab is @Dan_Kammen.
Stone: Dan, thanks for talking.
Kammen: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.