U.S. transition to clean energy is happening faster than you think, reporter says
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Recently, a team of reporters at the New York Times produced what kind of feels like an optimistic break from the doom and gloom of climate news. Huge swaths of our country are turning away from fossil fuels as an energy source and investing in wind, solar and other renewable energy. We're talking places like Texas and Oklahoma, once dominated by oil and gas, now building essentially new industries. The New York Times' three-part series called "The Energy Transition" explores the speed, challenges, politics and economics of this move toward newer sources of energy.
You've already heard it. Climate forecasters predict a catastrophic future if we don't move away from sources like oil and coal, which are warming the Earth at unprecedented speeds. But even with the growth in renewable energy use, there are some unanswered questions about the impacts of these alternative technologies. Our guest today is Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. He's also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape.
Brad Plumer, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BRAD PLUMER: Thank you for having me.
MOSLEY: You write about this transition to clean energy, that it's happening faster than we might think. Can you paint a picture of your findings?
PLUMER: You know, things are moving at such an astonishing pace. So just a few things - renewable electricity, globally, is now expected to overtake coal by 2025 as the world's largest source of electricity. We keep seeing automakers openly talk about expiration dates for the internal combustion engine, talking about how they're going to make more and more miles go electric.
An astonishing stat was this year, about $1.7 trillion worldwide was going to be invested in clean energy technologies - wind, solar power, electric vehicles, nuclear batteries - compared with $1 trillion on fossil fuels. So the amount of money going into it is just staggering. And we keep seeing these records broken. You know, the International Energy Agency, for years, they would put out this forecast of how much wind, how much solar, how many electric vehicles they expect in the coming years. And every year, it would turn out that they just way underestimated the speed of the transition. So it's something that's caught even the experts who study this for a living by surprise.
MOSLEY: More is being spent on clean energy this year than ever before, your team reports. What are some of the high-level actions that are actually driving this?
PLUMER: So the two biggest things are one, just the extraordinary fall in the cost of particularly wind, solar and lithium-ion batteries - have just plummeted over the last decade. So that's really taken these from a niche energy source that everyone used to think was too expensive to something that now looks like it can be a very real and serious part of the energy mix. And then the other big thing is there's widespread concern about climate change around the world, and governments are putting billions - hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies into a lot of these technologies in the hopes that they'll help cut carbon dioxide emissions.
MOSLEY: Let's talk a little bit about government investments. Last year, President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which promised to infuse nearly $400 billion towards clean energy efforts, the majority of it going to infrastructure. Can you share what some of that money has been used for so far?
PLUMER: Yeah. So it was such a wide-ranging bill. It had tax breaks for everything from new wind and solar projects that sort of extended existing tax breaks, but also for factories that make solar panels in the United States, which we'd never really had before, factories that built batteries for electric vehicles and then a bunch of sort of nascent technologies that have yet to get off the ground, like clean hydrogen fuels, technology that can capture carbon emissions from factories and power plants and bury it underground. So it just threw tax breaks at a wide range of technologies that people think may be helpful for cutting emissions. And some of them have proven extremely popular so far.
We've just seen an enormous number of announcements by companies that say they want to either shift manufacturing of batteries and electric vehicles to the United States or open up new factories to produce solar components, which up until now have largely been made in China. So, you know, when the bill was passed, economists did their best to try to estimate the cost, and they figured it would be around $400 billion. Now there are some experts who think it could be upward of a trillion or more, depending on how many projects get built in the U.S.
MOSLEY: Those incentives for corporations are pretty enticing. And I'm also thinking about for individuals moving towards renewable energy, it's just more affordable. I'd love for you to put into perspective for us the changes in just the sheer cost. For instance, it's not as expensive as it used to be to invest in solar panels for your home like it was 10 years ago.
PLUMER: That's right. So the cost of solar panels has plunged roughly 90% since 2009, and that's around the world. So that's already making it much cheaper. Then there are these tax breaks that can defray, you know, as much as a third of the cost of installing these panels on your roof. But also, the technology has gotten better and better where, you know, people can now pack more solar panels onto your roof, which means more electricity. And, you know, a bunch of companies have sprung up offering various business models for how to sell this. You know, there are companies now that will basically install the panels with no upfront cost and then sort of lease it for you and defray that cost by selling electricity. So it's really just been an explosion of business models. The costs have come down, and then these tax breaks have really encouraged a lot of people to go solar on their roof.
MOSLEY: Your team visited a few U.S. cities to see what this shift looks like up close. And one of those cities was Tulsa, Okla., where a company called Francis Energy is based. And Francis produces vehicle charging stations. What did your team find there?
PLUMER: Oklahoma is interesting because it has historically been a major center for oil and gas production. But, you know, over the past decade - Oklahoma is also extremely windy, and it's one of the best places in Earth - on Earth to put up wind turbines and wind farms. So they...
MOSLEY: Oh. Got you.
PLUMER: ...Have really seen an explosion of wind power over the last decade, even though it's got, you know, a government that is not necessarily super excited about tackling climate change and has not passed a ton of really strict rules encouraging renewable energy. The economics just makes so much sense there. But in addition, it's seeing other things. It's seeing new electric vehicle and electric bus startups. There's a large factory making batteries there. And, you know, it kind of shows that even in places that you don't think of as traditionally green states, people are embracing renewable energy just because the economics often makes so much sense.
MOSLEY: You know, what I'm hearing from you also is that something interesting about conservative opposition because climate change has been such a hot-button issue politically, but in this case, there's been a bit more bipartisan support. You actually featured a few Republican leaders who say it just makes economic sense to transition to clean and renewable energy, but they still aren't using the term climate change.
PLUMER: That's right. And it's nuanced. In Washington, the debate is still very partisan. The Inflation Reduction Act passed with zero Republican votes. It was very much seen as a Biden administration and Democratic project. But what we've seen since is that most of the, you know, clean energy, clean manufacturing announcements that have taken place - the majority of those have actually happened in red states. And there are a lot of reasons for that. There's often more land available. Some of these red states actually do quite a good job in trying to clear away some of the permitting snafus and have really embraced things like electric vehicle manufacturing. So there are a wide range of reasons why a lot of this investment is going in red states. So you get this interesting split where oftentimes local leaders are very excited about these investments because they can create jobs, they bring money into communities. But you still, at the national level, see this partisan split over the idea of climate change, over the idea of subsidizing clean energy. So it'll be interesting to see whether those investments on the ground start to shift that at all or whether this just becomes a permanent culture war that people have sort of strong opinions on that are a little divorced from what's happening on the ground.
MOSLEY: I'm just wondering - and I'm not even sure if you could answer this - but if your reporting has found that - for instance, I'm thinking about conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation, which we know is actively campaigning in opposition to climate change action. If all of what you're seeing on the ground - is it being eclipsed by The Heritage Foundation's actions, or do they actually have a stronghold on the hearts and minds of people as these big investments are happening?
PLUMER: So I think it's always mixed. Generally, you see state leaders often do welcome these investments. So you look at a place like Georgia, which, despite the last election, is still, you know, either a pretty red or at least a purple state. And the Republican governor there has very much embraced a lot of the investments that have come in. Now, there is still, you know, a conservative viewpoint that says, well, look, if these alternative energy sources are getting so cheap and make so much economic sense, do we really need subsidies to encourage them? So that's one argument you often hear. And there's debate around that, about how much is needed.
And you do see the flip side where, you know, we write about some of the challenges that these projects are facing - community opposition and whatnot. Oftentimes that opposition is very organic and it's, you know, people in communities who do not want wind or solar projects. But you also see examples - and I'm thinking of some of the offshore wind projects - where you will see conservative groups, oftentimes with ties to fossil fuel industries, sort of jump in and try to fan the opposition and contribute to that. So it's really kind of a mixed picture, and I don't think we know exactly how the next decade will play out.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer, talking with us about a three-part series called the Energy Transition, where he and his colleagues are examining the speed, challenges and politics of America's economy moving toward clean energy. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP AND JULIAN LAGE'S "IOWA TAKEN")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today, we're talking to Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. He has also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape. He and his colleagues created a three-part series examining the speed, challenges and politics of the U.S. economy's move toward clean energy. The series is titled the Energy Transition.
One of the really interesting things that you write about is that, of course, this Inflation Reduction Act is spurring a burst of new clean energy industries across the country in some of the places you mentioned. One of the problems is a worker shortage. There aren't enough workers for the abundance of jobs?
PLUMER: Yeah. That's something we've talked to companies over and over about. You know, electricians - that comes up often, that if we are going to be putting up all these new wind and solar projects, if we are going to expand the electric grid and add, you know, thousands of miles of new transmission lines, if people are going to install electric heat pumps in their homes instead of gas furnaces or if they're going to put rooftop solar on their roof, we're just going to need thousands and thousands of electricians. And that's something where the industry itself has sort of warned that there is a shortage. There's going to be a coming wave of retirements of people who are ready to retire. And, you know, there are young people who are interested, but maybe not as much as we're going to need.
MOSLEY: Also, these are specialized jobs. When you're talking about an electrician, are there training programs as part of this influx of investment?
PLUMER: There are training. It takes a few years to get fully licensed. So there is that delay. I talked to one solar company up in the Northeast that, you know, has been - they decided to start doing the training in-house, and they're training as fast as they can. But they have seen some of the wait times for rooftop solar increase by a number of months. I think it went from three months to around 10 months. That's how long people have to wait to get new rooftop solar panels just because they are booked up. You know, the demand for rooftop solar is rising faster than they can train new electricians.
MOSLEY: Are these renewable energy industries robust enough to build industry as we know it in cities and towns? Like, I'm thinking about the automotive industry in Detroit or the oil industry in Texas.
PLUMER: Yeah. So, you know, it - if we were to move away from fossil fuels at a very rapid pace - I mean, fossil fuels have underpinned the U.S. economy for decades and decades. And they still do. They still provide the majority of our energy needs, even with this shift. But it's going to mean huge changes for a lot of these industries. So we're already seeing this with automakers, where automakers are retooling some factories, closing some factories down so they could build battery factories elsewhere. It means often shifting to different states. You know, there has been concern among some unionized auto workers that some of the jobs are migrating to states where unions don't have as big a presence. So it's this big shift with electric vehicles. You know, the thinking is that electric vehicles actually take fewer workers...
PLUMER: ...To assemble and manufacture than traditional vehicles do. So that's a big shift. And one thing we've reported on many times is even if there are lots of clean energy jobs out there, and perhaps even more than there were fossil fuel jobs, they're not always in the same place. They're not always the same types of jobs. So those sorts of changes can be quite wrenching for workers.
MOSLEY: Also, for all of the news about this growth in renewable energy, you are clear to say that fossil fuels are still dominating energy production at this moment.
PLUMER: That's right. And it's still, you know, the change is pretty remarkable. I was - about 15 years ago, you know, solar and wind were about 1% of the U.S. electricity mix, and hardly anyone had an electric car. Today, wind and solar are about 16%, about one-sixth of all electricity. So that's - you know, you can look at it and say, well, that's still small, or you can look at it and say, well, that's extremely rapid growth. But for now, you know, fossil fuels do very much dominate.
For things like wind and solar, even in places that have an enormous amount of renewable energy, they still very much depend on natural gas plants or coal plants for backup when the wind's not blowing and sun's not shining. So figuring out how to get past that is an enormous challenge. And, you know, it's something that certainly the Biden administration wants to do very quickly, climate scientists say we need to do very quickly. And it's not easy.
MOSLEY: Brad, I'm curious how the U.S fares in the move towards clean energy compared to other countries maybe like China and the U.K.
PLUMER: Yeah. So right now, if you look globally, China leads on pretty much everything. They not only have by far the most coal plants out there, and they're the biggest greenhouse gas emitter by a large margin, but they are also building more solar panels than anyone else. I believe, you know, more than twice as much as the United States. More wind power, more batteries, more electric vehicles. So they just sort of have everything. And right now, their emissions are still going up. It hasn't been enough to push emissions down. But they are sort of the giant in the global economy on clean energy. They manufacture, you know, the vast majority of materials that go into electric cars. In solar panels, they sort of do everything.
Europe has historically been a little further ahead than the United States in cutting emissions faster in adopting renewable energy, but that's changing pretty quickly. The U.S. is catching up in a lot of respects, and particularly with the Inflation Reduction Act pouring all of this money into clean energy. You know, not only is it starting to catch up, but there's actually been concern in Europe that maybe we're pouring too much money into clean energy and starting to attract businesses and manufacturers to the United States.
MOSLEY: Are there any actions or ways of doing things in those other parts of the world that as a reporter you're really interested in and seeing if the United States will follow suit?
PLUMER: Yeah. One of the most interesting debates I covered in recent years was looking at what was happening in Germany, particularly after Fukushima. They made this move to close all of their nuclear power plants. And, you know, nuclear power can be very contentious, but it also does not produce any carbon emissions. It doesn't produce any air pollution. And it can be a big, important source of clean energy. And, you know, that has caused a number of issues for Germany. They've had to rely more on coal, which produces carbon dioxide emissions. You know, it has made energy prices volatile at times.
So in the U.S., we started to see in the mid-2010s a number of nuclear plants start to close. And, you know, it was a little bumpy. First states and then the federal government decided, you know what, this would be a bad idea. These nuclear plants produce clean electricity. If we close them, they're going to be replaced by natural gas or coal. That's going to push emissions up. And so both states and then eventually the federal government stepped in to subsidize these existing nuclear plants. So that was one thing where, you know, a lot of policymakers were looking at what was happening abroad, taking a look at what was happening at home and kind of learning a lesson there and moving in a different direction.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer talking with us about the speed, challenges and politics of America's economy moving toward clean energy. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today we're talking to Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. He and his colleagues created a three-part series examining the speed, challenges and politics of the U.S. economy moving toward clean energy. The series is titled the Energy Transition.
You know, something else that you report on that I'd love to talk with you a little bit more about is for all of the growth in renewable energy. corporations are still building new coal mines and oil rigs and gas pipelines.
PLUMER: Yeah. This - so this has become a pretty big debate in the U.S. Among environmentalists and people concerned about climate change, there is often this discussion about, what is the best way to tackle it? So do we build a bunch of clean energy and do we reduce the demand of fossil fuels and then they'll go away, or do we actually need to block and stop the production of fossil fuels? And, you know, I think - I covered the Obama administration when they were thinking about tackling climate change, and their view very much was you tackle the demand. You know, we get everyone into electric vehicles, and then no one will need oil anymore and it will just go away naturally. So we don't need to worry about blocking drilling or, you know, shutting down coal mines and so forth.
The Biden administration has taken a slightly different path, where they have been under a lot of pressure from environmental groups to clamp down on new drilling. At the same time, they also face this pressure that if you are too aggressive about clamping down on oil production, for instance, you could see gasoline prices go up. So they've been walking this tightrope.
And early on, I think they were a little more reluctant to crack down on drilling. You know, in recent months, they've been a little more aggressive at, you know, reducing the number of leases they've been handing out for offshore oil drilling. And it's a - you know, it's a real tightrope that they have to walk because, you know, it's been a truism for so long in politics that the price of gasoline at the pump has this outsized impact on how people think about politics. So, you know, I think by and large, they've been trying to not let energy prices spike, but they also face this pressure from, you know, a lot of their supporters.
MOSLEY: Also, what I'm hearing from you, and what is very clear, is that our demand for energy is just so high, higher than it ever has been before.
PLUMER: Yeah. And it's going to keep growing. And, you know, there's a bit of a debate among environmentalists - you know, do we need to maintain economic growth but just do it more cleanly, or do we actually need to rethink economic growth? I think, you know, the vast majority of people who work on this tend to think economic growth is quite good, and it's, you know, lifted people out of poverty and we all like it. And there are ways we can do this cleanly. You know, we can build clean energy instead of fossil fuels, and we can continue to have all the things we love about modern life.
But, you know, pretty much anyone looking at this and looking around the world will say energy use will continue to grow for decades and decades, not just here in the United States. But there are so many countries that use a tiny fraction of what we have, that have enormous number of people who, you know, can't even power a refrigerator. And, you know, it's something that's really important. Economic growth is just incredibly beneficial to people, and energy access is very important to people. So finding ways to do that cleanly is, I think, one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.
MOSLEY: One thing I'm interested in knowing about are upgrades to oil refineries, 'cause I think I was reading somewhere that so many of these refineries are really, really old, and upgrades to them would actually offer efficiencies that would be good for our environment and cost overall. And I'm just wondering, did you at all find any indication that improving refineries is also a priority?
PLUMER: Yeah. So this is one big question that hovers over the energy transition is, what role will there be for oil, gas, possibly even coal? Because there are technologies out there that could, in theory, allow us to keep using these fossil fuels but do it with fewer emissions. So a big one is called carbon capture. You basically hook up, you know, some pretty complex devices to the smokestack of a factory or power plant or refinery, and you capture the carbon dioxide that comes out. You use chemicals to strip out the carbon dioxide, and then you bury it underground. So the technology exists. It's been used for a long time, but it's always struggled to take off just because of high costs.
MOSLEY: And practicalities of it.
PLUMER: Yeah. So, you know, it's one question. Are there going to be places where it just makes sense because it's really hard to get rid of fossil fuels, you know? So possibly refineries could be one, but there are a lot of industrial processes - chemicals, cement, steel. You know, right now we use an enormous amount of fossil fuels to make all these products. They're very important to modern society. So a question is, you know, would it make most sense to continue to use fossil fuels but find a way to do it without emissions? Or would it make more sense to, say, make hydrogen fuel with renewable energy and use that to produce steel? And a lot of this stuff is still unresolved. People are still working on it. You know, I think in the near term, there's not a ton of movement, but it's something that in the coming decades, you know, we may see more and more of.
MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer talking with us about a three-part series called the Energy Transition, where he and his colleagues are examining the speed, challenges and politics of America's economy moving toward clean energy. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking with Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. He's also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape. He and his colleagues created a three-part series examining the speed, challenges and politics of the U.S. economy moving toward clean energy. The series is titled "The Energy Transition."
You know, Brad, I want to talk a little bit about the electric grid, because more broadly, the scale of true change, as your team writes, is that we need to invest in remaking systems that power our country. But our electric grid is a bear. And I actually learned from your reporting that it's not even a true grid. There are several grids. Can you break this down for us, some of the problems with the current electric grid infrastructure?
PLUMER: Yeah. So the electric grid we have was built up over a century. And this is the network of big transmission lines that run from power plants to cities. And then, you know, smaller distribution lines that run to our homes and businesses, you know, their substations, other infrastructure on the way. So it's this enormously complicated system that stretches across the country. It's divided up into dozens of different areas where individual utilities or regional grid operators will sort of oversee the system and try to keep it in balance.
But one key aspect of this is that, traditionally, it has been built around these central power plants - so these huge coal plants, huge nuclear plants, you know, pretty big natural gas plants - and takes electricity from those power plants and brings them to our home. So if we are moving to this system where we have more wind power, more solar power, those new types of power plants have to be in pretty specific locations. Like, it's very windy in the middle of the country, it's not very windy in the southeast.
So you know, they tend to be in specific locations, and there are just more of them. You need many more wind turbines and solar panels to replace a single natural gas plant. So if you start to move toward more renewable energy, you need more transmission lines, more wires, and you need them in different places. And different people come up with different estimates, but I've seen estimates that we may need to double or triple the size of the nation's electricity grid by 2050 if we want to cut emissions down to zero.
MOSLEY: That just sounds like the remaking of entire cities and areas. I mean, I'm just thinking about what that actually means for our topography and infrastructure of cities and towns throughout the country.
PLUMER: Yeah, it's a massive challenge. And building transmission lines has proven to be one of the most difficult infrastructure tasks. There's a great example where, you know, a group of energy companies basically wanted to create a massive wind farm out in New Mexico and bring that electricity to Phoenix and to Southern California. You know, we're talking several Hoover's Dam worth of electricity. And it took 17 years to...
PLUMER: ...Get that project approved because it crossed so many jurisdictions. And, you know, different counties had different views on where the power line should go. At some point, you know, they ran into concerns about environmental impacts, so they had to change the route. But, you know, that one project took nearly 17 years to get approval, to go through the permitting process. And so, you know, it shows that this very complex system does not turn on a dime.
It's very hard to build these lines. They can be very contentious. And then, you know, it does increase the complexity of the system when you have more wind turbines, more solar panels on the grid. You know, before anyone builds a new power plant, the people who oversee the grid have to make sure that it won't bring down the system...
PLUMER: ...That the whole grid can stay reliable. So it's creating this added level of complexity that, you know, if we don't figure this out either through policy, through better approaches, you know, could really slow down the transition to cleaner forms of energy.
MOSLEY: You ask a pretty straightforward question. Will the grid be able to handle all the new electric cars, for instance, many of them charging at night?
PLUMER: Yes. And, you know, what a lot of experts will tell you is, in theory, yes, absolutely. In practice, it could be tricky. So you know, just taking electric cars, one potentially obvious thing we could do is not have everyone charge all at once when they get home at 5, 6 p.m., you know? If the electric cars are just going to be sitting in your garage or at a charger all night, it should be possible for utilities to stagger when those cars are charged. And you wouldn't have to build as many power plants that all flip on at 6 p.m. to charge all those electric cars.
MOSLEY: You know, one of the things that you write about with the electric grid is that in some places, companies that build a new power source have to also pay the cost to expand the grid so that they can connect. And that becomes unaffordable. Can you talk about the sheer barrier around just the cost of doing that?
PLUMER: Yeah. So the electric grid we have is running out of spare capacity. And the way we tend to upgrade the grid now is a developer will come along with a new solar farm or wind farm, they'll make a request to connect. The grid operator will study it. They'll see what upgrades need to be made, and then they'll charge that wind developer or solar developer. And these might be a few million dollars, it might be a couple hundred millions of dollars, depending on the upgrades. So that - you know, those costs are rising very fast.
And there are certainly some people who think this is a little bit of a haphazard system, that we should be coming together as a society and planning proactively for all the renewable energy that we know is coming online, sort of spreading out those costs across everyone who will benefit. And there is some precedent for that. You know, Texas, back in the 2000s, quickly realized it was very windy out in west Texas, but there weren't really enough power lines to bring that power to population centers. So they came up with a plan to sort of proactively build a lot of transmission capacity out to that area. And it was a big factor in Texas becoming, I believe, the biggest by far wind state in the United States.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer, talking with us about a three-part series called "The Energy Transition" where he and his colleagues are examining the speed, challenges and politics of America's economy moving toward clean energy. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. He has also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape. He and his colleagues created a three-part series examining the speed, challenges and politics of the U.S. economy's move toward clean energy. The series is titled The Energy Transition.
Something that you've been touching on all throughout our conversation is some of the opposition in parts of the country to growth in clean energy, specifically wind turbines and the land, the sheer amount of land needed. I mean, essentially, you're talking about NIMBYism - not in my backyard. And communities throughout the country have vocalized how much they are against solar farms and wind turbines and new power lines. Can you share the story of one of those places? You reported on Sears Island in Maine. Tell us a little bit about what the opposition there looks like.
PLUMER: Yeah. So this relates back, you know, if we're going to build out a lot of wind and solar, it's going to be in new places that have often never really had energy infrastructure before. So the Northeast is a great example. There are a lot of efforts underway to try to build offshore wind off the coast. But this is, by and large, an area that just doesn't have a ton of energy infrastructure. It's not like the Gulf Coast, where they have a ton of oil platforms. You know, this is a place that hasn't really seen it before.
So you run into a fair amount of opposition, you know, in some parts down near Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We've seen opposition from fishing groups that have historically operated there, and that's people's livelihoods. And they've often been very resistant to new offshore wind projects or at least tried to find some compromise so that doesn't disrupt their fishing operations. And then, you know, in Maine, there are different sources of opposition. But one thing one of my colleagues who went up there found was that there were some environmental groups who were quite worried about the impact in the local area. Oftentimes it would just, you know, these are very beautiful places that people don't want to go and see a giant wind turbine right in their face.
MOSLEY: What is it actually like to live near a solar or turbine farm? Can you describe it?
PLUMER: There are solar farms that you can barely tell that they are there. Wind turbines are a little harder to miss, and it depends how close you are. But, you know, people complain about things like it can cast shadows. Some people say they can hear the noise. You know, it depends how close you are. Oftentimes, you know, people don't really like to look at them. And it varies. You know, one thing I should say is that obviously with the growth of solar energy and wind energy around the United States that we've seen, there are lots of communities that have no problem with these projects.
And, you know, by and large, when a solar or wind developer goes into a community says, you know, we'd like to build this, you know, we'll pay the people that we're building on their land and it just gets built, that tends not to be a news story. We don't report as much on the successes. We tend to report on the things where there are, you know, bitter fights, opposition. So that sometimes does skew perspective. But, you know, there are a lot of communities that have different complaints for a wide variety of reasons. And, you know, they don't always prevail. But we are seeing more and more opposition. And we are seeing more communities that say - you know what? - we just don't want this here.
MOSLEY: You know, during most of this conversation, we've been talking about these very specific types of energy sources - wind, solar, battery powered. Are there other energy sources that are also being brought to scale or being tested that you're interested in exploring?
PLUMER: Yeah, definitely. So one is nuclear power, which, you know, I'm reporting on and writing on now. It's already - you know, it's been around for decades. It currently provides about 20% of our electricity as is, but faces a lot of challenges going forward, not least that attempts to build new reactors most recently have run into big cost overruns, big delays. You know, the most recent two reactors built in Georgia, which are almost nearing completion, costs about $35 billion. And, you know, there are some people who will say they are overregulated. But either way, they are very tightly regulated, which means they need specialized components. They need to follow very rigorous safety standards. Again, there is a debate over, you know, whether that's gone too far. But these are big, complex projects. And they're so large that, you know, any delays just mean that your costs go way up.
The other one I reported on recently that I thought was really interesting was geothermal energy. And this - you know, we've known for a long time that there's an enormous amount of heat under the ground. And there are a few lucky places around the world like Iceland, parts of California that can dig down. And they find these underground hot water reservoirs, and they just tap that heat, and they create a clean electricity that runs 24/7. The problem is it's always been very limited in where that is. So it only provides a small share of U.S. electricity.
But, you know, most recently, I wrote a story about people who are taking new drilling techniques from the oil and gas industry and trying to find ways to access heat pretty much anywhere in the country. They're starting out West because that's where it's closest to the surface. But, you know, I followed one company, Fervo, that is using fracking techniques to basically drill down into the ground, reach the hot granite and then inject water into there to create hot water that can produce electricity.
MOSLEY: Oh, that's interesting. Yeah.
PLUMER: So, yeah, that's also - you know, it's early days. We'll see if they can figure it out and if they can bring the cost down so that it makes sense to do this on a truly large level. But it's one of the promising ideas out there for this issue of what else might we need besides wind and solar.
MOSLEY: Right. And also, there's probably - I mean, you have, like, a list 10 pages long of potential energy sources, but it's about bringing those sources to scale. That is also the biggest challenge, I'm guessing.
PLUMER: Yeah, it's a huge challenge. And so, you know, the Inflation Reduction Act, combined with other funding, combined with efforts at the Department of Energy, are trying to scale up a bunch of different, new energy technologies. So, you know, in theory, you can create this sort of clean hydrogen fuel using wind and solar power. And hydrogen is great. You can basically burn it like a fossil fuel. It has some drawbacks, but it's pretty versatile. But you need to figure out, OK, how do we bring down the cost of actually making it, and then how do we transport it? We'll need to build new pipelines, and we'll need to find people who actually use it and get them to buy it. And so, you know, standing up a whole industry like that is very complicated, and trying to do it quickly is really difficult. But it's something that - you know, the Department of Energy is currently actively trying to create a big hydrogen economy because they think it could be a helpful clean energy source in the future.
MOSLEY: Well, you and your team's reporting certainly feels like - it feels like hopeful news. Does it feel that way to you, as someone who's deeply steeped in it?
PLUMER: Yeah, I would say reporting in climate and clean energy, it's always this mix of - I don't know if it's optimism and pessimism or enthusiasm and cynicism. But it's a balance, where there are so many exciting things happening in the world of energy, in the world of climate, there are so many smart people working on ways to cut emissions, to cut pollution, to tackle climate change. It's incredible the amount of innovation that's out there - companies, businesses, scientists, engineers, all these people working on incredible things. But, you know, if you look at climate change and listen to scientists who say we need to completely remake the global economy to stop climate change by, you know, sometime around mid-century...
PLUMER: ...That's just such an enormous task - and do it even as we know that there are all these countries that need much more energy to lift themselves out of poverty and, you know, enjoy energy access. But it's such a massive challenge that it's easy to look at that and say, OK, well, wind and solar have grown to 16% of our electricity mix. That's still a pretty small fraction, and it's not enough to stop climate change. So I feel like reporting on this - and I think this was part of why we did this series. There's this real mix of - it's incredibly hard. There are exciting things going on. You know, all the efforts that are underway right now probably aren't yet enough. It's unclear if they'll ever be enough. But there are a lot of people out there really trying to make a huge dent. So it's a mix, which is why it's an exciting area to report on.
MOSLEY: Brad Plumer, thank you so much.
PLUMER: Thank you. This was great.
MOSLEY: Brad Plumer is a climate reporter for The New York Times. He's part of a team of reporters that recently published a three-part series called the Energy Transition. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews, like with DJ and producer TOKiMONSTA or author Cat Bohannon, whose new book traces the evolution of women's bodies. Listen to FRESH AIR wherever you get your podcasts. And for a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. You'll find more about the interviews, staff recommendations and highlights from our archives. You can subscribe at whyy.org/freshair.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY SMITH'S "JUDO MAMBO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.