The Conversation recently published an interview with Dr. Erin Baker, distinguished professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, about the technological, political, and regulatory elements of the United States’ effort to transition to renewable energy.
Baker commented that “there has been amazing technological change over the past 15 years. Offshore wind costs 50% less than it did six years ago. Solar has had a sixfold decrease in costs since 2010. And I think there’s a lot of evidence that technology will adapt and improve if we set the goals and incentives for it.”
However, Baker noted, there are nuanced social issues to consider when administering those incentives. For example, “it’s common for states to subsidize rooftop solar. And this is good, but the people who get the subsidies are people who own roofs with sun shining on them. People who live in apartments and in cities don’t have access to this, and yet they’re paying for the subsidies. We take the money for the subsidies from everyone, including low-income people, and send them mostly to white, wealthy suburbs.”
Furthermore, for the benefits of renewable energy technology to be fully realized, they must be paired with effective climate policy, and in this area, Baker noted, the United States has historically fallen short: “in terms of policy and regulations, we are moving forward, but we need to be more aggressive. Something that we’re missing and that would be really helpful would be a coherent, federal-level climate policy – whether that is regulatory policy, such as we have for pollution, or a carbon tax or some kind of a cap.” Striking a more optimistic note, Baker referred to the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act as “a fantastic starting point.”
Baker serves as the faculty director of The Energy Transition Institute, which focuses on research at the intersection of energy technology, climate resilience, and social equity.