US Needs to Double Grid Building Pace for Climate Change Law Benefits
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Princeton University mechanical engineering professor Jesse D. Jenkins has become a clear voice in predicting and understanding climate-change impacts now and in the future, and in leading efforts to model how solutions might work and how to get them done.
Since his arrival at Princeton in 2019, he has directed its Net-Zero America Project, which quantifies pathways to decarbonize the U.S. economy. More recently, Jenkins has been a key architect of research and advocacy through its REPEAT project to show why carbon cuts won’t happen without major government action. The team’s analyses of Biden administration policies and Congressional legislation—notably last year's fast-moving climate change law—became critical tools for policymakers, and everyone else, to understand the response path ahead.
“The marketplace alone is highly unlikely to produce a zero-carbon grid by 2035,” says Jenkins, a former energy and climate policy analyst who has a joint appointment on Princeton’s engineering faculty and in its Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment. He became what Politico dubbed the “go-to energy wonk” and a media favorite in the months before and after enactment last August of the climate-change bill—the Inflation Reduction Act—which earmarks $369 billion in funds and incentives for projects set to cut greenhouse gasses.
“For the first time ever, we have the full financial weight of the federal government at the backs of the clean-energy transition,” Jenkins said. Nearly $3.5 trillion in cumulative capital investment in new U.S. energy infrastructure between 2023 and 2032 would result, one REPEAT project report noted.
Jesse Jenkins, an MIT-trained PhD engineer who leads Princeton University-based research to model decarbonization pathways such as analysis of the landmark 2022 climate-change law, says “sharing what you know with the world can be a tremendous public service.”
Image: Princeton University Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment
“The report Jesse and his colleagues produced is simply a stake driven in the ground that this is what it will take to get us there,” says William Wallace, a climate change engineer, president of consultant Wallace Futures Group LLC and a past ENR Newsmaker for creating infrastructure sustainability rating tool ENVISION.
Other studies since then include one on major gaps in U.S. transmission infrastructure to link cleaner energy sources. Without faster grid expansion, the shortfall could negate more than 80% of emissions cuts the bill foresees by 2030, it said.
But Jenkins’ outreach goes beyond research reports and congressional testimony. An active Twitter user, he also advises clean energy linked investors, tech startups and nonprofits, as well as local governments and students.
Google and GE are founding members of a Princeton consortium Jenkins helped launch last year to push low-carbon technology commercialization.
“To ensure my research is plugged-in to the kinds of questions that are on people’s minds work and ensure my work can improve decision-making, I need to be engaged with real-world challenges,” he told a university interviewer. "It’s really important for researchers studying energy transitions to think not only about what the technology looks like, and how we make it cheaper, but also how we can address some of the non-cost-related barriers. This may be how we get the social license to site and build large amounts of new energy infrastructure, or how we align new jobs and benefits with places that experience job loss as we transition."
Jan Pepper, CEO of a San Mateo County, Calif., nonprofit that developed its own modeling tool to help local municipalities reach a goal of 100% clean energy by 2025, cites Jenkins’ input in helping to refine it to better predict outcomes. His assistance to New Jersey lawmakers last year as they chart the state’s clean-energy future prompted one to vow to “put [him] on speed dial.”