Elaine Albrich is a Partner in Davis Wright Tremaine's Portland office. As a permitting lawyer, Elaine helps developers and investors permit and build renewable energy projects. As a climate advocate, Elaine uses her skills and experience as a lawyer to work toward a carbon neutral future.
I have been working in the renewable energy industry for a decade and a half, helping developers build wind, solar, and battery storage projects and helping investors invest in these projects. Each renewable megawatt I help permit, and more importantly, help get built, feels like a step in the right direction. More than ever, we see the urgency to end fossil fuel use as the temperatures continue to increase upwards, weather patterns become more extreme, and wildfires become bigger and more severe. Despite – or perhaps because of – this urgency, I am optimistic about our ability to combat climate change. The enormous cost and human toll of global warning can no longer be denied or should no longer be accepted. There is a clear roadmap for the actions we need to take in order to mitigate the effects of global warming. And the rapid pace of innovation is providing the tools and technology to enable us to take these actions.
The Cost of Climate Change
In the western United States, we are facing a "megadrought" which is one of the worst on record. A UCLA-led study, published February 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that the last 22 years of the western drought have been the driest period for 1,200 years, with reservoir and soil moisture levels at historic lows. The study drew its conclusions by looking at tree-ring data to reconstruct soil moisture across centuries, studying an area from southern Montana to northern Mexico and from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. It concluded that the exceptional drought severity we are facing in the west is attributable to anthropogenic climate trends.
The cost of climate change is extraordinary – not only to those whose livelihoods are impacted by drought, but from the cost of increasing weather/climate disaster events. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Information released a Q1 2022 report which tallied the economic consequences of the 2021 weather/climate disaster events across the United States. There were 20 events in 2021 where losses exceeded $1 billion each, with the damages from all 2021 disasters totaling an estimated $145 billion.
The Path Forward
While it is widely recognized that significant efforts are needed to meaningfully decrease carbon emissions, change (and change that will shift traditional power dynamics) is very difficult. On April 4, 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body that assesses science related to climate change – released a new report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, which is the third part of the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report. As detailed in the Summary for Policymakers, the IPCC identifies the consequences of failing to act soon enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC also proposes strategies and actions needed to achieve a net-zero CO2 energy system and to mitigate climate change. They include:
- Deploying widespread electrification and low-emission energy sources like wind, solar, battery storage, and renewable hydrogen.
- Enhancing carbon uptake and storage using carbon capture and sequestration to remove and store CO2 at scale.
- Rethinking how agriculture, forestry and other land use can provide large-scale emission reductions.
- Sector coupling (i.e., integrating the energy consuming sectors – buildings, transport, and industry – with the power producing sector), energy storage, smart grids, demandside management, sustainable biofuels, electrolytic hydrogen, and derivatives to accommodate a large share of renewables on the electricity systems.
- Deploying demand management, energy and materials efficiency, circular material flows (e.g., recycling, repurposing, and feeding back materials into the economy to reduce extraction of primary raw materials), abatement technologies, and transformational changes in production processes to reduce energy emissions.
Implementing the roadmap outlined in the IPCC report will not be easy or happen overnight. It will take leadership from both the public and private sectors. But ultimately, innovation will be the key to the transformation to a net-zero CO2 energy system. And that transformation is happening.
Innovation Is the Key to a Net-Zero CO2 Future
In its State of Climate Tech 2021 report, PwC noted that investment in climate technologies is accelerating at a breakneck pace – 210% growth year on year from 2013 through June 30, 2021, culminating in almost $84 billion of climate tech investment worldwide during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2021, with 67% of that investment coming from the United States. The solutions being developed through this investment target climate change across sectors in three ways: by directly mitigating or removing emissions, by helping us adapt to the impacts of climate change, and by enhancing our understanding of the climate.
In my area of focus – renewables – I see remarkable innovation. I recently attended the Pacific Offshore Wind Summit in San Francisco where over 600 climate professionals gathered to brainstorm about the future. I was reenergized and inspired by the real traction of offshore wind technology and the possibility that projects will get built. Here are just a few examples of the innovation underway using offshore wind:
- Platforms for wind turbines that float in the water allowing offshore wind development where water is too deep for fixed-bottom solutions. This technology is opening new areas for offshore wind development like we are seeing in California and Oregon. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) identified two wind energy areas – Morro Bay (central coast) and Humboldt Bay (northern coast) – for offshore wind leasing. In Oregon, BOEM is engaged in planning efforts to identify call areas for wind leases.
- Production of renewable hydrogen. Given offshore wind's high-capacity factor, offshore wind is a way to produce renewable hydrogen at scale. One technique is to produce hydrogen at an onshore electrolyzer powered by the offshore wind. Another method, and one that could help alleviate an already congested electric grid system, is to produce hydrogen offshore and then send hydrogen molecules onshore through a pipeline rather than through a subsea cable.
Innovation in offshore wind is just one part of the climate transformation that is underway. And this gives me hope that we can achieve a cleaner, more sustainable environment for future generations. It also inspires me to redouble my efforts to do my part to make that future a reality!