Policy: The driving force behind sustainable transition

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Clean energy is a priority for global leaders – and rightfully so, writes Robert Braun, director product management gas devices at Itron.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report released in August 2021 is further proof of why we must act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And for many, it’s another reminder of the devastating impact climate change is already having – with natural disasters such as rampant wildfires, dangerous mudslides and pervasive droughts increasing in severity and frequency.

As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres aptly put it, the report “is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”

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This warning should be a call to action – companies must be laser-focused on finding innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and governments need to encourage these companies to do so. That is where regulatory frameworks come into play.

Standard regulatory frameworks remain a barrier to innovation

The impact of climate change is clear, and the industry has its marching orders. For instance, in the U.S. President Biden declared that the country will be carbon neutral by 2050 and that by 2030 the U.S. will meet a 50-52% reduction of greenhouse pollution compared to 2005. The European Union also announced their intention to reach similar targets, demonstrating the worldwide commitment.

While goal setting is a necessary starting point, the race is on for the private sector to bring new, next-gen technologies to market that can reduce and remove global greenhouse gas emissions.

To fast track the invention of new technologies and encourage the adoption of current ones, companies need to be incentivized to go out and take risks. Because like many great quotes allude to – failure is necessary for success. Unfortunately, regulatory frameworks have historically not given companies enough runway to take on appropriate risk without fear of failure. When a project doesn’t work out, for example, they may face paybacks or penalties.

The good news is that this doesn’t have to be the case – when done right, regulatory frameworks can foster an environment where companies feel empowered to take risks without fear of retribution. According to a recent report on renewable energy from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Policymakers often strive to implement a unique mix of complementary regulatory policies, fiscal incentives, and/ or public financing mechanisms to overcome specific barriers or meet individual energy sector development goals. These mechanisms, if well-designed and effectively implemented, can help spur the needed investment in the energy sector to meet national RE and/or EE targets.”

Combating climate change and the role of utilities

It’s hard to address climate change without talking about the role of utilities. Transforming utilities is not the only way to combat climate change and meet sustainability targets, but it is certainly an important one. In recent years we’ve seen a greater focus on clean energy through the use of wind and electric power, along with increased interest in natural gas. In fact, by 2025, natural gas among other energy sources such as renewables are expected to be the second largest energy source.

Natural gas is a lower carbon fossil fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “burning natural gas for energy results in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning coal or petroleum products to produce an equal amount of energy.” Natural gas will also help in the transition to a hydrogen economy – a path that has the potential to reduce emissions, while keeping energy delivery reliable and affordable.

Many view hydrogen as the future of energy – particularly when it comes to replacing our reliance on coal. A Wall Street Journal article on hydrogen noted “major oil companies in Europe, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC, BP PLC and Repsol SA, are ramping up their investments. They’re betting that their expertise and infrastructure can give them an edge in this growing market, and they see government aid and profits down the road.”

In addition to utility companies making investments, there are many other stakeholders looking to make current technology cleaner and create new solutions. Itron, for example, has methane (a global warming gas) detection sensors on advanced gas metering infrastructure (AMI) networks. Additionally, research into how gas products and solutions will handle natural gas blended with green hydrogen produced by renewable energy is underway.

While we are making progress as an industry, there is still a clear opportunity to push the envelope and create new innovations that will turn the tide against climate change. Companies need to feel empowered to take risks and create change.

Getting creative with regulatory economic frameworks

In addition to regulations encouraging companies to bring technological advances to market quickly, they also need to promote a culture of information-sharing between private and public entities. This will prevent companies from having to reinvent the wheel and allow them to benefit from work already done. When information sharing is baked into regulatory economic frameworks, companies will be financially incentivized to be more transparent.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for every government or industry, the goal is to quickly identify and replicate frameworks that end up successfully speeding up creation and implementation of renewable and energy-efficient technologies. Together, with the right support from the government, we can create a cleaner environment for future generations.

About the author

Robert Braun, director product management gas devices at Itron, has worked in the gas industry for more than 20 years. He helped to develop one of the first solid state gas meters at ABB Switzerland, and was essential to the market introduction of this new technology to international markets while working at Swiss Gas Metering and Diehl Metering.

In his current position at Itron, he oversees the global portfolio for gas devices and with his team drives innovative product roadmaps for gas meters and gas pressure regulators and gas volume converters.

He holds a degree in mechanical engineering from University of Mining and Technology, Freiberg and an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) in International Management from The Kalaidos University of Applied Sciences.

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