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Engineers need to play a role in climate policy

The Biden administration is making climate change a top priority and has started issuing executive orders affecting energy production nationally. State governments are also studying a variety of carbon-reducing mandates.

What should business leaders be doing?

One thing we shouldn’t be doing is mindless bandwagon-jumping and taking part in happy talk about renewable energy. Advertising that your company is all-in for a carbon-free America may make you feel good, and it will make climate activists feel good, but it isn’t doing one thing to get us there.

What we should be doing is getting educated about energy use and production, and advocating for sensible engineered solutions to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, to be implemented on a sensible and achievable timetable. Everybody wants to react to climate change, but how many of us want our solution to include greatly increased energy costs and reduced reliability of access to adequate power?

If you don’t think those things can happen, look no further than California. Instead of engineered solutions, California leads the nation in political mandates. California wants everyone to drive electric cars, charged on a power grid already struggling with reliability because California also is adding more and more unreliable solar and wind power. Multiple cities in California have already banned natural gas hookups in new buildings, opting for electric heat, stoves and hot water, more load on the grid.

Anyone who studies this problem from an engineering perspective quickly understands that wind and solar power have inherent reliability problems. Solar panels don’t work at night and wind turbines don’t work when there is little or no wind. One solution to this problem would be robust, affordable, high-capacity power storage. Unfortunately, our battery technology has not advanced to the point where it can be the solution, and we don’t know when it will.

For the time being, renewables must be backed up by conventional coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plants. Since these plants can’t start up instantaneously, they must be running all the time, ready to breach any gap in capacity. The coal and gas plants, even as backup, still emit carbon while they idle, and we are closing nuclear plants across the country as they reach the age for license renewal.

There are several exciting new nuclear power plant designs, much smaller, more reliable, and safer than the old Westinghouse and GE designs of the last century. Nuclear power creates no greenhouse gas emissions of any kind and has the greatest power density of any technology we have, but politically, who has the backbone to be its champion?

The best solution isn’t totally clear, but what is clear to me is that trying to tackle this problem with willy-nilly mandates at the local, state and federal level. This won’t succeed and will probably be harmful. We need fewer politicians virtue-signaling to climate pressure groups. We need far more engineers involved, not just for design innovations, but having a strong voice in making policy.

We need business leaders and organizations representing business interests at all levels of government, advocating for engineered solutions implemented on a sensible timeline. The US Chamber of Commerce is addressing this through its Global Energy Institute whose mission is “to unify policymakers, regulators, business leaders, and the American public behind a commonsense energy strategy.” That’s a good start, but I believe it’s critical that our business leaders, chambers of commerce, and other business advocates play a much larger role at the state and local level.

Don’t sit on the sidelines. Get educated. involved. This is too important to leave up to politics.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at [email protected].

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