The Energy Transition Needs a Project Manager

Project Manager

On May 18th, the International Energy Administration released a roadmap for the Global Energy Sector to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. To do its part to help the world meet a 1.5 C goal and avoid climate catastrophe the US will have to dramatically increase solar and wind capacity, mandate that all new cars be electric by 2035 and ensure all new buildings are “zero-carbon-ready” by 2030. Meeting the milestones laid out in the report (or any number of similar transition plans) will take a lot of work. That’s why the US needs a “project manager.” An organization with the skills and authority necessary to implement the energy transition for the least cost and most benefit to the American People.   If the model of establishing a project manager is successful in the US other countries will likely follow to implement the energy transition for the least cost and most benefit for their countries. 

Transitioning from carbon-based to renewable energy means that a lot of stuff (solar panels, heat pumps, electric vehicles etc.) will have to be built. To get an idea of the scale of the transition required consider the case of electric vehicles. In 2020, 296,000 plug-in light duty electric vehicles were sold in the US out of 3.4 million cars. To reach the IEA goal the US will need to be making over 2 million additional electric cars annually in less than ten years. That’s a giant increase in manufacturing capacity, major disruptions to existing supply chains, new requirements for workers and a whole host of other issues. It’s also a huge opportunity as some industries grow and others are created. 

One challenge to a successful energy transition is the speed at which infrastructure moves in the litigious environment of the US. Think about a project in your neighborhood like a new bike lane, a new apartment complex or an intersection. It might have dragged on for years with community hearings, complaints and competing interests. If we try to transition our energy system at that speed, it will be too slow, too expensive and too late to save the planet. We need to find a way to make our economy move at a speed we haven’t seen in years.

A more pertinent example is the Vineyard Wind project that recently received it’s official “Record of Decision,” from a few federal agencies. Here’s a statement from the companies press release: 

Since 2017, the Vineyard Wind 1 project has been through an unprecedented and exhaustive public review process that generated more than 30,000 public comments, more than 90% of which supported the project.  The Construction and Operations Plan (COP) was reviewed by more than two dozen federal, state, and local agencies over the course of more than three and a half years. 

That’s simply too slow and too complicated of a process to allow for a rapid transition to clean energy. 

If we build solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles quickly we can avoid climate catastrophe. If we build them at the speed of neighborhood construction, we’ll destroy the planet.   

Fortunately, we’ve had a similar industrial mobilization before. It worked so well that we won World War 2.  America’s ability to mobilize industry was critical to winning World War 2. To get an idea of the scale of the mobilization consider that in 1940, the US was producing 6,000 military aircraft and by 1943 produced 85,000. Or consider that the US Navy grew from 700 to 6,000 ships. Production doubled across the manufacturing, construction and mining industries as the nation produced what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “the arsenal of democracy.”  As Bill McKibben put it in a 2016 article, “We need to declare war on climate change.” 

The rapid increase in production for World War 2, didn’t just happen. President Roosevelt made it happen. 

According to Mark Wilson’s 2016 book, “Destructive Creation,” the “military-industrial juggernaut relied heavily on public investment, public management of industrial supply chains and robust regulation.” To take one example, President Roosevelt created the War Production Board (WPB) by executive order. It brought together executives from large industrial companies such as General Electric and Washington Steel along with the American Federation of Labor and the Secretaries of War, Navy and Agriculture. WPB supervised the production of $183 billion of weapons and supplies, building all of the aircraft, ships, guns and ammunition needed to win the war. $183 billion in 1941 is equivalent to over 3 Trillion today. 

Skibo Energy envisions a similar entity called a Rapid Substitution Coalition. The Coalition would serve as a “project manager” to oversee the energy transition in all of its complexity. Its main job would be to ensure that US industry addresses climate change at the speed of WW2 mobilization and not at the speed of a contentious apartment complex. The Coalition would be accountable for meeting climate goals provided with the resources needed to move quickly to ensure supply chains are adapting to the transition, keep individual projects moving and ensure that customer needs are continually being met. The Coalition will also be empowered to move quickly to ensure that stopping fossil fuel activities doesn’t create too much negative impact on any companies.  

We’ve done this before, and we can do it again. Our parents and grandparents won World War 2. Now, it’s our turn. It’s our job to save the planet. 

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