PITTSBURGH—As world leaders gathered in New York City last week for the 77th U.N. General Assembly, another international conference focused on a global transition to clean, renewable energy took place here in what has been the epicenter of the American steel industry.
At stake was how trillions of dollars will be spent to catapult technologies like carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and long-term battery storage from the research and development phase to commercialization over the next decade. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who hosted the conference, said the clean energy market will reach $23 trillion by 2030, with demand for green technology like wind turbines and batteries soaring as costs fall.
The inaugural Global Clean Energy Action Forum brought together energy and science ministers from over 30 countries, CEOs and thousands of clean energy enthusiasts. Big names like Bill Gates, the billionaire philanthropist who co-founded Microsoft, John Kerry, the Biden administration’s climate envoy, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) took to the main stage to promote public-private partnerships aimed at decarbonizing heavy industries like steel, cement, shipping and aviation, and promoting clean energy jobs. “Deploy, deploy, deploy,” Granholm said, referring to the rollout of clean energy technologies, on the conference’s opening night.
But outside the conference, local community activists, students, Indigenous groups and environmentalists denounced some of the promoted technologies, calling them expensive diversions from renewable energy options with less harmful tradeoffs, like wind and solar power.
“On the agenda in the ministerial are some technologies that are being discussed as clean but we are calling them false solutions. Those are technologies like carbon capture and sequestration and hydrogen power derived from fossil fuels and fracked gas,” said Beka Economopoulos, an environmental justice advocate and a founder of Not An Alternative, a nonprofit arts and activist collective.
The gathering was part of a week-long series of events organized by a coalition of environmental groups called Clean Energy Justice Convergence. The events included rallies, roundtables and tours of petrochemical, steel and fracked gas infrastructure in the region.
At those events, representatives from “front line” communities said they were supportive of new technologies that create clean energy without negative tradeoffs, like “green” hydrogen that is made using solar and wind energy. But, they said, other technologies, like “grey” hydrogen, made using natural gas, perpetuate existing problems like toxic pollution and continued reliance on fossil fuels.
In Western Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracking wells are disproportionately located in poor, rural communities, opposition to continued fracking was a particular flashpoint for environmental justice groups.
Heaven Sensky, a community organizer with the nonprofit Center for Coalfield Justice, said her community in Washington County just south of Pittsburgh is still waiting on the results of health studies they pushed the state government to conduct after an apparent increase in childhood cancers corresponded with the timeline of the fracking boom in the area.
“There’s not a kid in Washington County who doesn’t live within five miles of a well-pad and we know fracking poses significant health risks, particularly for children,” she said. “Despite this, we face continued fracking and they’re calling it clean energy.”
In August, researchers at Yale School of Public Health found that disease was twice as likely for children who live a mile from a fracking well.
Sensky also condemned the promises she said the gas industry made to her community at the start of the fracking boom, particularly that the area would become wealthy and have low energy prices.
“There are no billionaires in Washington County,” she said. “The gas is sent to a cracker plant that produces single-use plastic. The sacrifices we’ve made of our land and health aren’t heating homes or bringing soldiers home. It’s making plastic and polluting the tri-state area.”
Other advocates criticized the notion that technological advances alone can prevent harmful levels of global warming. Sun Dance Chief Rueben George from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation said that the way humanity thinks about its relationship with the Earth needs to shift away from an extractive mindset.
“It’s about thinking in a better way for future generations,” he said, encouraging the crowd to think of innovative ways to push back against industrial pollution.
George was part of a group of Indigenous elders and youth transporting a totem pole from Washington State to promote climate justice and support communities in Appalachia
and around the world that are affected by fossil fuel production.
But moving away from fossil fuels isn’t enough. Because the world has waited so long to aggressively slash emissions, the International Energy Agency has said that the goals of the Paris Agreement will require that around half of global emissions cuts by 2050 must come from technologies not yet commercially deployed.
The official conference, billed as the “clean energy event of the year,” was aimed at advancing those technologies. The three-day forum brought together the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation initiative, two international mechanisms designed to drive clean energy innovation with members from governments, businesses and academia.
The groups held high-level inter-governmental meetings, Davos-esque “fire-side chats” and talks on topics like critical minerals, nuclear energy, green shipping and sustainable aviation fuel. Noticeably absent from the conference was any discussion about biodiversity protection, a key tenant to solving the climate crisis, but one that is often in tension with the need to procure critical minerals used in electrification.
During remarks on the opening night of the conference, Secretary Granholm said the conference would spur innovative ways to lower carbon emissions while creating jobs and promoting national security. Referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Granholm said the war “underscores the important message here at this conference, which is that as nations we must be energy secure. And in order to be energy secure, we cannot rely upon the volatility of fossil fuels from Petro-dictators…the way to do this is to grow up our own homegrown clean energy.”
The newly enacted Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Law and CHIPS and Science Act collectively provide over half a trillion dollars towards investments in the environment and clean energy, she said.
The Department of Energy also announced its latest “earthshot” during the conference—the sixth in a series that includes initiatives to lower the costs of hydrogen energy, long-duration energy storage, carbon capture and storage, enhanced geothermal, floating offshore wind, and technologies to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.
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On Thursday, Granholm announced the Energy Department’s launch of a massive $7 billion grant program to establish as many as 10 hydrogen hubs across the country. The program, aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions in steel, cement, transportation and other high-emitting industries, will establish at least four hubs that produce varying types of hydrogen—“green” produced from renewable energy, “pink” from nuclear energy, and “grey” from natural gas. Currently, the cost to produce green hydrogen far exceeds that of grey hydrogen.
On Friday, Granholm announced the Energy Department’s plan to achieve 100 percent carbon-neutral aviation fuel by 2050 and $4.9 billion in funding for carbon capture and storage systems.
The grant programs and earthshots are geared toward meeting the U.S. government’s goal of a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035,” part of the larger aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.