Episode 166: Resiliency, Automation, & The Energy Transition with Carnegie Mellon's, Costa Samaras

Today on the podcast, Jason sits down with Carnegie Mellon’s Costa Samaras to discuss his research, why the clean energy transition will take everyone, and what gives him hope. For the full interview, listen now!

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Your research focuses on climate change, specifically resiliency, automation, and the energy transition. Can you discuss the connection between those areas?

I like to think about the climate change issue as a systems issue, you poke on one piece, and another piece is affected. In order for us to understand the transition to electric vehicles, we really have to understand the transportation world, we have to understand the electricity system, we have to understand international supply chains, we have to understand lifecycle assessment.

So, there are all kinds of skills that students and researchers, and practitioners will need to build teams of experts on, to kind of make change in some of these systems problems. We shouldn't be building infrastructure that's not climate-resilient. We should be building infrastructure that's going to enable a decarbonized future. And we also should be building infrastructure that anticipates disruptive technologies, like automation, and increases equity. One of the big themes here is in transportation and infrastructure, we look back at the 20th century and we see some amazing progress but often with great costs. We don’t want to look back in 50 years and say, "Wow, we really messed that up." Or, "Wow, this was intentionally done wrong because of racism or other bad intent." We wanna do things right from the beginning. And so that's how and why I think a systems approach to this problem is where we're coming from.

Why is it important to bring about a just and equitable clean energy transition?

As a global community, we need to ensure that the world has access to clean modern energy services. The people that are in energy poverty around the world, have a big opportunity for advanced life outcomes by having access to energy. And we the global community need to ensure that that access is robust and clean and spread as far as possible. The other thing to understand is that climate and climate impacts are a multiplier of poverty. And the folks that are in poverty around the world have been and will bear a disproportionate brunt of additional climate impacts. So as we do mitigation and climate mitigation, we can reduce the impacts of climate on the most vulnerable around the world. It's not really a choice of, should we do development, or should we do climate mitigation?

We have to do clean and sustainable development and climate mitigation to improve everybody's lives in the world while also getting 100% access to modern energy services for anybody that wants it.

Are you worried that your research falls on deaf ears, especially given the state of our democracy in the US? 

It's on everybody to be an active participant in democracy. And that's at the local level, that's at the state level, and it's at the national level. And what do I mean by that? I mean, I'll have people who will tweet at me about, you know, national policy issues. And I'll ask like, "Have you ever gone to a local planning and zoning meeting where they're talking about bike lanes? When's the last time that you have talked to the staff at your city council person's office or your state representatives office, or your national representatives’ office?" And there's been a lot of great work, some by Dr. Leah Stokes and colleagues that says like the national politicians don't hear from constituents, as much as they hear from kind of vested interest. And so they have a skewed view of what people want because nobody is telling them what they want.

And one way to be an active participant in democracy is just to show up and be a part of the discussions in your community, and think about the things that you want in that community. Whether that's safe streets for walking and active transportation, whether it's clean energy from your local municipality or the purchases from your local institutions that are clean energy. Every municipality in the country has some vehicle fleet, there's like two and a half million state and local vehicles out there. There's no reason why we couldn't transition a whole bunch of them to electric. And I don't know how many local officials’ offices even heard that idea from their direct constituents. And so you asked like, do we care if our research sits on a shelf somewhere? Obviously, everybody who does research wants it to have a high impact. A lot of times though, the impact can be direct.

What is the role that consumers and advocates play in a voluntary market? And is that enough to get us to a clean energy transition?

Is voluntary enough? Absolutely not.

But we are going to need every single piece of voluntary action and very robust national and global action to get this done. What we talked about is like building megaprojects, building big real megaprojects in New York City. Decarbonization is a global megaproject. It's the biggest in history. It's gonna take every single country on Earth, and we're gonna have to get it all done at the same time. I believe it's doable, and I think that we need to be very clear of the scale of the challenge and attack that is deliberate and focused, but also not be overwhelmed by it. And if somebody wants to do local action, and be that local champion, that's positive. But for sure, we will need government investment. If you look at the recent IAEA report around net zero, clean energy investment will need to triple by 2030. And that's public and private. So, we'll need to make big investments, both publicly from governments and from the private sector to get this done.

I heard you touching on personal decarbonization and individual action, but if we look at the larger climate problem, it's not individual action that got us here. Fossil Fuels companies have been promoting recycling for decades and others say that carbon offsets are just an excuse to continue polluting. Why is it important to create systems changes as well as consumer behavior changes? What would you say to those who say, “individual action isn't enough”?

The concept of a personal carbon footprint, or the notion around recycling, did deflect a lot of the responsibility. But at the same time, you should recycle. It's the law in most places. Recycling aluminum is good. If you're gonna use aluminum, recycle it, because it reduces the energy use from natural aluminum production in a big way. 

What I'm trying to get at is, we can be aware of the big systems problems and the big kind of political economy challenges and push for a change in how those things are done. And at the same time, we can be technology adopters, we can be conservationists, and take individual actions that start to shift where the public is around a clean transition. Kind of think about the mindset around smoking and how it changed pretty rapidly. That was a response to government regulation in some places, but then it was that kind of social norm that started to change too.

I still believe it's not an either/or, and for sure, we need systems to change and we need government investment to get this work done. I just don't want to dissuade the folks who are doing what they can in their corner of the world to make their community a better place by fighting for a bike lane. They're doing good work, that's important. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can also be pushing for system change. I don't think it's helpful to throw up our hands and give up on what we can do individually. And at the same time, be very clear-eyed about what systems change needs to be to get done.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing that would most accelerate the energy transition, what would you change?

Oh, wow! I would love to have a zero-carbon electricity system tomorrow. And if we have that, then a lot of the stuff that we've been talking about makes everything cleaner. I don't know how many wands you're giving me Jason, but I'd love to have a very clean source of heat, industrial heat, I'd love to have a very clean source of cement or some sort of construction material. I'd love to have zero-carbon airline fuel and shipping fuel. There are big challenges that we have ahead of us that we can solve. And we don't have magic wands, but we do have our voice. And we have our abilities. And every single person can do something for this transition to get it done in time.


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