Did you know that as of 2022, only 13% of the total energy supply is powered by renewables?
As an environmental engineer who services the utilities industry, I have dedicated my career to improving the integrity of our energy infrastructure while cleaner energy sources continue to grow and meet our energy needs. Though I stand at the forefront of a monumental industry shift in this landscape, I am driven to question and find solutions to how we can ensure that our nation’s infrastructure stands robust and steadfast as we journey towards a greener future. The path ahead is not without its challenges, but the mission to provide reliable energy with massive emission reductions is paramount. There will still be some emissions but, hopefully, we can successfully adjust and rebuild our infrastructure to better harness and reuse fuels that would have otherwise been emitted into the atmosphere.
As an immigrant from Iran, I have a unique perspective on how other parts of the world live with regular brown-outs, limited energy access, and, as part of a normal existence, operate in the most environmentally wasteful and harmful ways. We, as Americans, do not have this kind of tolerance, yet do have ample financial resources, access and the ability to innovate new technologies and approaches that lead by example.
Over the last decade, the United States has witnessed an impressive increase in the adoption of renewable energy sources. Wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power have carved a significant niche in our energy mix. Though this is a giant leap forward and a testament to the collective desire to reduce emissions, increase efficiencies, and decarbonize energy to mitigate climate change, it is not (yet) enough.
While green energy innovation and building flourish, it’s crucial to remember that a substantial portion of our energy still hinges on an old and aging infrastructure. The growth of fossil fuel energy generation is slowing with renewable outpacing it, but coal, oil and natural gas will still be providing up to 77% of our energy needs until 2040.
With all the innovation, regulations, mandates, promises and financial commitments that are building a green infrastructure, we must confront a stark reality: the importance of maintaining and continuing to decarbonize our existing infrastructure is greater now than ever before.
Americans are rightly passionate about transitioning to cleaner energy sources, but this energy source needs to also be provided in an affordable and efficient manner. Even as we strive for renewables, our reliance on existing systems necessitates a dual approach — one that embraces green technology while shoring up the foundation that sustains us.
As leaders of businesses and organizations, we need to create ways to combine profitability with sustainability. Here are three suggestions:
• Every corporation must adjust its overall approach to catch up and establish its own environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) commitments and mandates because if they don’t, there will likely come a time that their clients, customers, and/or consumers will go with other providers who do have such measures.
• Revamp business strategies from a new purview to make sustainability a revenue enabler as opposed to a cost center.
• Establish your sustainability strategies in such a way that is measurable and repeatable by various departments.
To address these challenges, we must embark on a multifaceted journey. First and foremost, investment in modernizing our energy grid is imperative. The current grid is complex, interconnected, and at times, outdated. It requires continuous improvement along with cutting-edge technologies that can balance the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources and ensure seamless distribution nationwide.
Our focus must extend below and above the surface. Our subterranean infrastructure — pipelines, cables, conduits, and overhead wires that crisscross the nation — transports energy and resources to power homes and businesses. A robust program of maintenance, repair, and modernization is essential. This includes not only addressing current vulnerabilities but also anticipating the demands of emerging technologies.
Let us remember that the journey towards renewables is not solely about adopting new energy sources — it’s about a complete metamorphosis of our energy ecosystem. The spotlight may be on wind farms and solar arrays, but the heart of our energy lies beneath the surface and within our grids, cables, and pipelines. It’s a heart that must be strong enough to endure, beating resiliently as we transition towards a cleaner future.
Bolstering our infrastructure empowers our nation to embrace renewables without compromising reliability. A stronger foundation ensures that, as renewables scale up, our transition remains smooth and steadfast. In this endeavor, partnerships between the general public, government, institutions, and private sectors will be pivotal. Government incentives, tax breaks, and collaborative research initiatives can fuel the progress needed to meet this critical juncture.
As we navigate this transformation, history offers invaluable insights into what worked and what didn’t during previous transitions. The transition from coal to oil, kerosene and eventually electricity, for instance, involved years of gradual adaptation that preserved energy access and minimized societal disruption. Today, we have the unique advantage of learning from these historical precedents, enabling us to chart a course that prioritizes continuity and sustainability and execute at a much faster pace.
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