President Biden has committed to getting the economy to net-zero greenhouse (GHG) emissions by no later than 2050, and America’s unrivaled innovation ecosystem is ready to develop and deploy the clean technology needed to address the climate crisis. However, successfully navigating the unprecedented pace and complexity of the clean energy transition requires understanding and managing the interactions within and between three systems:

  1. The physical and technological system consisting of energy and material resources, energy technologies, and infrastructure and logistics for transporting energy from where it is produced to where it is used;
  2. The economic and financial system of money flows connecting producers of energy materials, technologies, and services to energy consumers; and
  3. The social system of customers, workers, and communities who rely on energy in one way or another to support nearly every aspect of their lives, but also bear the brunt of the environmental impacts of energy production and use. The choices people make will ultimately determine the nature and pace of the energy transition. The coming energy transition must produce solutions that are equitable for all communities now and in the future.

On September 23, 2022, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted a session called “Systems Thinking for a Rapid and Just Net-Zero Transition” at the Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh, PA. This event, moderated by OSTP Deputy Director for Energy Dr. Sally Benson, featured senior governmental officials and energy systems thought leaders. The discussion explored how these interwoven technological, economic, and social systems interact to accelerate or slow down the energy transition. The panelists also discussed how we can use systems thinking to assure a just transition for everyone – a transition that rights the historic inequities in how energy benefits and burdens are distributed. The discussion focused around these broad questions:

  1. What do we need to know about these interacting systems to ensure a rapid and just energy transition?
  2. What kind of models and data are available for us to give us the knowledge and evidence we need to manage the energy transition?
  3. How can these models and data be improved to use the information we need to drive policy decisions?

Each of the panelists provided their expert perspectives, some of which are highlighted below.

Joseph DeCarolis, the Administrator of U.S. Energy Information Administration, led off the panel discussion by highlighting the need to deploy cutting-edge energy systems models to understand new dimensions of the energy transition, including issues such as  technology deployment under deep decarbonization pathways, community-level impacts, and critical mineral needs. “In modeling we focus on the what, but the how and the why are important. Open source energy systems modeling can help with the how and the why,” said Administrator DeCarolis.

Alejandro Moreno, the Assistant Secretary (Acting) and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Power in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, talked about how systems-level thinking and trying to reduce complexity are two of the biggest macro-trends in the energy community right now. “What can be electrified? What order and when will they come online? What combinations of technologies would you need? Add to this new threats, from human actors and from climate-driven threats, and we can’t look to the past as a guide. What you need from an individual technology depends on the rest of the system,” said Acting Assistant Secretary Moreno.

Betony Jones, the Director of the Office of Energy Jobs at the U.S. Department of Energy, stressed the importance of ensuring job quality in the energy transition and looking at the distributional impact–  location, trades, and skill requirements– of the jobs gained and jobs lost. “We need to think about the human dimensions of the energy transition. Workers need to see their future in a low-carbon economy. With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, job quality was factored in from the beginning with prevailing wage standards to ensure good, family-sustaining, good-paying jobs. What if we built energy system models to optimize for equity and good jobs? By building distributional costs and benefits into our models, perhaps we would see new potential in solutions written off by a more narrow analysis,”  Director Jones said.

Destenie Nock, an Assistant Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, highlighted the need to build people-centered assessments for energy systems models and incorporate climate impacts modeling to assess energy insecurity. “If you’ve ever kept your home colder or hotter than you wanted to for the purpose of saving money, these type of impacts are not currently reflected in energy models. We can use system models to assess different solutions to make everything cheaper, more reliable, and more equitable,” said Professor Nock.

Finally, Erin Mayfield, the Hodgson Family Assistant Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College, talked about the need to maximize benefits and minimize damage to communities and ecosystems in the energy transition. “You can find energy systems models from the 1970s that use multi-objective modeling. But we have better computational power now and better ways to incorporate environmental justice and labor impacts in our models now. And it’s essential we all work towards broader multi-criteria energy systems modeling to enable decision-making needed for a just transition,” said Professor Mayfield.

OSTP Deputy Director for Energy Sally Benson summarized the panel discussion by highlighting that systems thinking and systems modeling approaches are the key to a rapid and just energy transition, and that new interdisciplinary decision-making approaches are needed that combine methods from the natural, social, and engineering sciences to enable technology transformation and unprecedented deployment. “We’ve made lots of progress advancing clean energy technology. Now is the time to build on this success by using systems thinking to guide the decisions and actions that we take on the path to net-zero by 2050. The bottom line is that we can’t just get the technology part of the energy transition right, or the economic part, we need to get the people part right too,” said Deputy Director Benson.


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