As Head of Research at EnerKnol, Jonathan Crawford oversees EnerKnol’s portfolio of weekly research publications, drawing from a decade of experience reporting on U.S. energy policy and markets. Previously he served as reporter at Bloomberg News, heading up coverage of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Before that he was lead reporter of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at SNL Energy, now a part of S&P Global. Jonathan earned a Master’s degree in journalism from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. He sits down with Path to 100%’s Michael Levitin to go over Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and how US States are navigating those, how data modelling and analytics impact markets and legislation, and his views on using data objectively in planning a realistic path to 100% renewables.
Michael Levitin: Before we dive in, let’s start with where you work. Your company name combines two words, Energy and Knowledge, with the mission to drive investment and innovation to transform the energy industry. What is your vision at Enerknol and how do you seek to impact the industry?
Jonathan Crawford: Energy policy in the U.S. is changing faster than ever before, and it’s happening across a North American regulatory landscape that’s fragmented. The wholesale energy markets are in upheaval and the nation’s resource mix is set to decarbonize at an unprecedented scale. This is a recipe for uncertainty and financial losses. EnerKnol’s mission is to provide insights into how the regulatory regimes are evolving, and to ultimately drive efficiencies around the deployment of capital by maximizing alignment with policy and market trends.
Levitin: Can you describe, in the plainest possible terms, how the Enerknol data platform works, what it accomplishes, and what your tools and services bring to the energy analytics space?
Crawford: The EnerKnol Platform is a cloud-based database that streamlines the search, discovery and monitoring of market-impacting policy developments across the entire North American energy sector, from FERC and the RTO/ISOs to state utility commissions and legislatures. The Platform is coupled with our market-leading research, which dissects major trends and provides insights on policy risks and opportunities. The Platform enables analytics on a number of fronts, from retail rate cases to renewable legislation.
Levitin: Your Primer on Renewable Portfolio Standards takes a deep dive into the ways that states are leading the clean energy transition. How do you feel RPS standards have progressed in the U.S. over time, and across different regions? Are there areas where you see the greatest success, and why?
Crawford: More, faster and higher is how I would describe action on renewable mandates. More states are boosting their RPS standards, with the targets set to expand at a faster clip. You’re seeing the most RPS upgrades among left-leaning states, in contrast to more conservative ones where there’s little-to-no action. I’d say not-so-sunny Massachusetts would be a gleaming example of a state that’s a success because it ranks fifth in the nation for solar generating capacity.
Levitin: A number of states have yet to enact RPS. Why is that, and what can be done to encourage those states to come on board with ambitious carbon targets like their neighbors?
Crawford: We’ve seen time and time again the outsized influence of utilities exerting their sway to have commissions hold back on renewable incentives and mandates. States like Arizona, Texas, and Georgia have some of the weakest RPS targets and risk failing to maximize the benefits of what are some of the most ideal solar conditions. To encourage more action, I think it’s important to find that common ground by threading the needle, particularly in rate design, where utilities can maintain the interest of their shareholders, to whom they are beholden, while pursuing end goals that benefit the public. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Levitin: Looking ahead, how do you see RPS evolving to meet tomorrow’s energy landscape and clean energy demands? Are the standards working effectively enough, or do we need to see even more aggressive climate targets established?
Crawford: Clean peak standards, a more granular valuation of renewables, and more stringent environmental performance standards for RPS-eligible generators are among the policy innovations you see. States and utilities routinely overachieve renewable portfolio targets, and I think that’s at least in part because the amount of renewable power supplies coming online have been underestimated, but also because policymakers took a more measured approach as these programs first got underway. Maryland and Massachusetts for example have each revised their standards about half a dozen times in just the last decade.
Levitin: A lot of people get easily confused by the language of renewables and carbon cuts, for example, one state says it will have “80% renewables by 2040” while another claims it will be “zero carbon by 2050.” Can you talk about the difference in renewable standards when it comes to “zero carbon” goals versus “carbon neutral” goals, and why do distinctions matter?
Crawford: A carbon neutral standard allows for the use of carbon offsets. As an example under this scheme, a state could allow a coal plant to continue in operation, provided it takes any number of measures to offset those carbon dioxide emissions, such as by planting X amount of acres of trees, or sequestering those emissions in an underground reserve, a process known as carbon capture and storage. So when you net out the difference between the carbon emissions and the carbon sinks, you reach zero. There’s criticism around carbon neutrality because of the risk of so-called leakage, where measures to cut pollution in one jurisdiction results in higher pollution in another as market participants find loopholes to evade the rules.
Levitin: You formerly worked as a reporter, for Bloomberg and others, covering the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the U.S. EPA. Do you feel the federal government in its regulatory capacities has done enough to help drive the transition towards a renewables economy? What could it be doing to speed up and strengthen the process?
Crawford: Federal agencies have opportunities to do so much. Grid operators can fine-tune eligibility rules to boost the participation of renewable resources in the regional wholesale power markets and to more appropriately compensate the value of those supplies in the energy, capacity and ancillary service markets. More can be done to lower the costs and uncertainty and cut the time for utility-scale projects to connect to the transmission grid. The process of citing and approving interstate transmission projects, the backbone for building large new projects, can be streamlined. The list goes on.
Levitin: What other kind of data and research are you undertaking at Enerknol that is relevant in today’s energy industry? What do you see as the next frontier of energy data analytics?
Crawford: EnerKnol Research has examined how utility rate designs are getting an overhaul with the flood of distributed generation and the steep declines in power sales. We’ve also looked at how state efforts are gaining ground to expand the adoption of battery storage and electric vehicles. As for what’s next in analytics, you’re seeing efforts to optimize data from smart meters, which has massive potential to drive down power costs by enabling the use of demand response and efficiency programs. There’s also initial efforts around harnessing blockchain technology, which could make things really interesting around distributed energy resources.
Levitin: Enerknol created New York Energy Week to bring thousands of energy and business leaders together to further drive investment in the sector. How do you see the business community adapting to the challenging moment we’re in from an energy and climate perspective?
Crawford: There seems to be a whole-hearted embrace of the challenge. While we saw global investment in renewables fall, it’s still robust. Just look at the billions of dollars being invested and the immense technological innovation. But I also think there’s a lot of head scratching as industry and stakeholders try to understand how it’s all going to play out around these carbon reduction programs. There’s a lot of regulatory and technological limits that are getting pushed, and you see that in states like New York, New Jersey and California. The reality is I don’t think anyone has all the answers.
Levitin: What does the Path to 100 mean to you? If you were to talk with other companies and business leaders about why they should get on board with a vision for 100% renewables, what would you say to them?
Crawford: Renewable standards have a time and a place, but under an ideal scenario the market will take over at some point and drive us toward these outcomes. And you’re starting to see this occur in some places, as costs plummet and as the technology improves. As for messaging, you have to be objective about the data that underscores the urgency of the climate crisis. You have to be smart and sensitive to the risk of capital losses and stranded assets like you saw in Germany, with its energy transition. And you have to be inspirational about the tremendous growth in renewables, the immense job creation, and the drastic greenhouse gas emission cuts.