Decarbonization is the Way Forward

By Shannon James

In July, I had the privilege of attending ACEEE's Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Industry, an event that brought together industry leaders from various sectors. Among the attendees were representatives from utility companies, federal and state energy officials, and organizations dedicated to energy efficiency. What struck me during the conference was the unanimous consensus on the necessity of decarbonization. Hundreds of participants from across the nation were united in their understanding that a substantial reduction in emissions is the only way forward to ensure a habitable future. The conference's primary focus was on the industrial sector, which accounts for over 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

The Biden administration has set ambitious decarbonization goals and provided two significant resources to translate these goals into actionable plans: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Companies at the conference were eager to capitalize on this progress and learn about the most effective strategies and technologies for decarbonization. To guide these efforts, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has developed an "Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap" that identifies four key pathways to reduce industrial emissions through innovation in American manufacturing.
The first two pillars of the roadmap are energy efficiency and industrial electrification. The third pillar encompasses low-carbon fuels, feedstocks, and energy sources, including the integration of hydrogen and biofuels. The fourth pillar addresses carbon capture, utilization, and storage. While these strategies were discussed at the conference, there was a clear acknowledgment of the need for more in-depth research and development in the field of industrial decarbonization. Fortunately, funding is available to expedite this crucial process.

As I listened to discussions about transitioning to clean energy and achieving net-zero goals by many utility companies, I couldn't help but contrast their forward-thinking approach with that of my local utility provider, NorthWestern Energy. While other companies explored concepts like industrial heat pumps and net-zero objectives, NorthWestern Energy's plans seemed to revolve around increasing Montana's reliance on coal by acquiring a larger share of the Colstrip power plant. Their recent Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) unmistakably indicates a commitment to locking Montanans into expensive fossil fuel dependence. This plan neglects the consideration of low-cost renewable energy alternatives and fails to recognize the impact of federal funding available through the IIJA and the IRA to support the transition to clean energy.

In a world where climate impacts continue to devastate regions globally, it's disheartening to envision this outdated energy plan becoming a reality in Montana for the next two decades.

My brief stay in Detroit did not convince me that there is only one definitive path to decarbonization. Rather, it highlighted the need for a versatile toolbox of strategies and the potential for developing new ones. Nonetheless, I left with a sense of assurance that a significant number of utility and manufacturing companies are genuinely committed to reducing emissions and advancing towards an energy-efficient future. The Department of Energy has forthcoming funding opportunities for industry applicants, and community benefits will play a crucial role in any application. It's incumbent upon us, as Montanans, to exert pressure on NorthWestern Energy to utilize federal decarbonization funding to positively impact local communities. Montanans deserve a healthy climate and a brighter future where people are prioritized over profits.

Photo of Shannon James wearing a blue puffy jacket and standing in front of a snowy landscape