Scientists' organization focuses on lowering carbon emissions through renewable energy



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Samuel Gomberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists said last Thursday that, though there are many reasons to promote renewable energy sources, his main interest as a scientist is in seeing less CO2 in order to curb climate change.

As Joseph Calvaruso, Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, put it in his introduction, “Sam Gomberg is an energy analyst who urges new responsible energy policies that support a level of renewable energy to bring about significant reductions in carbon emissions.”

The occasion of Gomberg’s appearance was the Gerald R. Ford Energy Lecture Series, co-sponsored by Varnum LLP and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and Foundation. Additional contributing sponsors include Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, The Right Place, and MiBiz.

President Ford signed legislation in 1973 to set up a framework for national energy policy, along with alternative energy research. Though the U.S. does not currently have an across-the-board energy policy, many speakers in the series have felt it would be a positive direction.

Gomberg told the large audience gathered at the Ford Presidential Museum for the Energy Lecture Series that as a nation and as a state, we are on the cusp of major changes in the way energy is sourced, and some alternatives are better than others. In fact, his lecture was entitled, “A Discussion on Michigan’s Energy Future - Beyond Coal.”

He started out talking about the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), saying that he often encounters the question, “What are you concerned about?”

His own answer is, “Climate change, air pollution, and safe and adequate water supplies,” with energy sources playing a role in all three.

But if asked of the broader UCS membership, the concerns would include other areas: Climate Change, certainly, as expressed in both Clean Energy and Clean Vehicles programs, but also Food and Environment, Nuclear Weapons, and Science and Democracy, with UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy bringing scientific data to the public and elected officials to ensure a more informed decision-making process.

Founded in 1969 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology by a group of students and faculty opposed to nuclear weapon proliferation, UCS also defends scientific integrity as a whole against those who seek to weaken its influence in the public conversation.

Gomberg said, “I work out of the Chicago office, keeping track of current energy trends such as retirement of coal-fired plants and the growth of renewables and energy efficiency. I try to  determine the most robust set of data that we can use to make decisions about the future.”

Gomberg’s previous position was in energy policy as well, as the Tennessee Valley Energy policy manager of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which had him engaging directly with utilities, lawmakers and other stakeholders. He also clerked for The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working on Superfund cleanups.

While his bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in environmental science and management, Gomberg also received his Juris Doctor from Lewis and Clark School of Law.

After talking about his climate change concerns, Gomberg added, “We’re also concerned about affordability and about keeping the lights on.”

He said that 2008 was a pivotal year in energy, both nationally and in Michigan. It was in 2008 that Michigan passed its 10%-by-2015 Renewable Portfolio Standard as well as a requirement to ramp up energy efficiency (energy optimization) by 1% each year.

As Michigan stands ready to activate its own energy policy, Gomberg noted that very little has changed since 2008 in the composition of sources of energy. He used Governor Snyder’s pie charts to demonstrate that. Predictions for 2015 are that the energy mix will include 9% renewables, 14% natural gas, 18% nuclear, and 59% coal. Gomberg said natural gas has gained a couple percentage point, but otherwise 2015 is very similar to the 2008 mix.

However, he said, “Everyone agrees we’re about to see big changes.”

Gomberg feels that the results of such mandates legislated in various states has been a greater understanding of how effective alternative sources are. “The demand for more renewables and more efficiency have brought about expanding new technologies,” he said. “Utilities and residents and regulators are learning that these things work; the industry has learned how to integrate a maturation of these technologies into the system that really signals renewables are going to play a larger role.”

Noting that Michigan has its own complex energy circumstances such as the Upper Peninsula fuel crisis, Gomberg commented, “From my perspective there’s a lot of talk here about costs; I don’t think there’s enough about risk. The utility companies view it in those terms. You have to factor in price volatility with natural gas. Fortunately, we’re getting to a point where renewables are cost effective, and they’re very low-risk, so they seem like a good investment.”

He wrapped up his remarks with technical information about wind energy, solar, and the way the energy distribution systems work before taking questions.

Bruce Goodman of Varnum Law joined Gomberg on stage. It is Goodman who leads in organizing the Gerald R. Ford Energy Lecture Series. He has a long practice in Energy and Environmental Law and writes the “Watt’s New” electronic newsletter.

Most of the questions he asked Gomberg were derived from audience submissions.

The two discussed energy efficiency; Gomberg said that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit there still. They touched on carbon sequestration, which Gomberg thinks is a bad idea, just putting off dealing with carbon until some point in the future; and battery storage for wind and solar energy. “We’re really seeing a price point now that makes us able to focus on renewables even without adding storage capacity,” he said.

Stating, “Rooftop solar is a game changer,” Gomberg went into policies that support distributed energy, which he said was basically a generalized term for electricity generated by the customer. Personal-scale solar energy generation has utilities worried, and he added, “It’s creating a lot of stir about how the utility business model”?— which he said removes almost all risk from the utility and places it on the consumer — “might need to change.”

In response to a number of questions about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas, Gomberg said UCS is studying the situation closely. “There are lots of issues — enormous risks for water quanity, groundwater contamination, potential for earthquakes, methane leakage, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. All of these things are not being studied fast enough. But I think by the time the cost of natural gas goes up enough to warrant digging wells all over Michigan, investment in renewables will have already taken place.”