Episode Description

Host Cortney Piper interviews Charles Sims, Director of the Center for Energy, Transportation and Environmental Policy, Howard H. Baker Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, about the Valley Pathways Study. 

The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Baker School launched the Valley Pathways Study in February 2023 to evaluate the existing environmental landscape and explore opportunities to reduce carbon emissions and create a competitive, sustainable economy. 

In the episode, Cortney and Charles discuss key findings from the study and how to build a competitive, clean economy in the Tennessee Valley.

Learn more about TAEBC and the Baker School. Download the report here.

Thank you to our podcast sponsor, FirstBank.

Episode Transcript

Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. I’m your host, Cortney Piper.

Welcome back to Energizing Tennessee, powered by TAEBC and FirstBank. Today, we’re discussing a landmark study to decarbonize major economic sectors and identify opportunities for achieving a clean, sustainable future for the Tennessee Valley. The Howard H. Baker Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs and the Tennessee Valley Authority brought together 24 participants, TAEBC was one, from multiple sectors to share their perspectives and ideas for how we can work together to achieve net zero emissions valley-wide by 2050. 

And guess what? We have plenty of feasible, actionable options. The Valley Pathway Studies should give folks who live here hope that with innovation, there comes change, positive change, and that innovation can be found right here in the Southeast.

We have the solutions to create a cleaner environment, modern infrastructure, and new economic opportunities for our state and our country. As always, if you like what you hear, subscribe to our channel and don’t forget to leave a rating or review. It helps us reach a wider audience to champion Tennessee’s advanced energy sector.

Energizing Tennessee would not be possible without the support of TAEBC members and our sponsor, FirstBank. To learn more about FirstBank and how they can support you or your business, visit FirstBankonline.com.

Today on the show, I’m speaking with Charles Sims, Director of the Center for Energy, Transportation and Environmental Policy at the Howard H. Baker Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs. Charles, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Charles Sims: Thank you for having me, Cortney. I’m thrilled to be able to talk about this really important issue today.

Cortney Piper: Well, before we dive into that topic, tell our listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do at the Baker School. 

Charles Sims: I’m the director of the Center for Energy, Transportation and Environmental Policy at the Baker School. So, this is a center that’s focused on trying to take natural and physical science and incorporate it into policy.

And so we spend a lot of our time talking to engineers and biologists and hydrologists and soil scientists and you name it and helping think through how we can get their science into more informed public policy. I’m an economist by training, but I apply my economics toolbox to a wide variety of problems, from some of the decarbonization points we’ll be talking about today to endangered species policy and even policy around infectious disease and public health and things like this.

I grew up in Knoxville. So, I’m very familiar with TVA and the background of things we’re talking about today. I got two degrees at the University of Tennessee, both in forestry, before I went off and got a Ph. D. in economics at the University of Wyoming and then eventually, to my family’s chagrin, came back home to Knoxville about 10 years ago, where I’ve been at the Baker School ever since.

Cortney Piper: Well, we’re glad to have you back home, even if your family’s not, we’re glad to have you here. Now, tell me a little bit about the Valley Pathway Study. The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council was a stakeholder in this process, and I can say from my perspective, what I enjoyed most about this was the process and the exercise of thinking this through.

So tell me a little bit more about the Valley Pathway Study, what it is, and why it’s important. 

Charles Sims: The Valley Pathways Study, I think the first and foremost is a planning exercise for decarbonization for the Valley as a whole. I think a lot of when we think of decarbonization in the Valley, we tend to think of TVA and we tend to think of decarbonizing the electricity sector.

Which is very important but this effort was really focused on the other sectors of the economy that are emitting greenhouse gases. So I think first and foremost, that’s the most important thing to keep in mind. We’re sort of prone to think of TVA as being the biggest emitter and the place where most of our efforts need to be focused.

But as we saw through the study, there are lots of other sectors of the economy that need our attention. The pathway study is really not prescriptive. So, the goal here wasn’t to come up with a list of to do items for different industries or different cities. It was really to talk about what was possible.

So, we determined a scale. We were looking at net zero by 2050, and we wanted to just identify paths that were feasible for the valley to get to that goal. And then think a little bit about what the impacts of those different pathways might be. Decarbonization is sort of a complicated problem, and so We tend to think that there’s only one solution to complicated problems, but the pathway study is really just reminding folks that there are several different ways that we can get to net zero.

And even if we don’t agree on the way to get there, we’re all usually on the same page of trying to achieve a similar goal. 

Cortney Piper: That’s what I found to be the most fascinating with the Valley Pathway study and a nice dovetail to the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council’s mission because, like that process and those paths you described, our definition of advanced energy is technology neutral.

So anything that makes energy cleaner, safer, more secure, more efficient, it’s in the tent. And I really appreciated the process of applying that umbrella approach or not prescriptive solutions to a large problem. So, is there anything else that you want to say about the process of going through this Valley Pathway Study?

Charles Sims: The thing that we learned through the stakeholder process, and Cortney, you were there and you kind of saw this, was the most important thing we wanted to get out of this was sort of a commonly agreed upon set of facts. When you talk about decarbonization, it’s very easy for folks to bring their own facts to the table that support their position and then argue for a particular pathway to get to net zero, we wanted to say, look, let’s just start with a common baseline that we can all agree upon.

And then let’s have a non combative discussion about the different ways to get there. So, like I said, a lot of people have looked for the study to actually give them marching orders and tell them what to do. And we were very deliberate about not walking into a room telling people what to do.

We have lots of expertise here at the Baker School. We have lots of expertise at TVA. We have lots of expertise at Oak Ridge. We instead wanted to come back and say, okay, here’s what’s possible. Now, what would we like to do utilizing these tools at these different places to help us to help us plan a pathway that might be unique to each industry or each city?

One of the things I kept harping on people as we went through this was that there is no silver bullet. The path that it works for Nashville will be different than the path that works for Murfreesboro, which will be different than the path that works for Hancock County, for instance. So we really wanted to not kind of take commonly agreed upon plans that were being developed in some of the bigger cities in the Valley, and then try to export those to other places.

Cortney Piper: All right. Drum roll. What were some of those key findings? 

Charles Sims: The main findings that we started with were the inventory itself. So, anytime you do a pathway study, you really need to sit down and figure out where you are right now. So the big finding that we had for the moment was just where are all the emissions coming from.

So, we emit about 200 million metric tons of CO2 in the valley. That’s accounting for emissions from each sector of the economy. So 27% of those are coming from the electricity sector, about 36% from transportation, 14% from industry, 7% from residential commercial buildings, and then 16% is sort of a catch-all for agriculture and non energy. So, I think the first finding was that transportation is actually the largest source of emissions in the valley. I think historically it’s been electricity generation, but those emissions from electricity generation have gone down considerably over the past decade to the point now where transportation is sort of the biggest source of emissions in the valley.

Cortney Piper: And I recall that the Mayor of the City of Knoxville had a climate council, and there were similar findings within the City of Knoxville, too, that our main source of emissions is transportation. So, did you have any key findings related to transportation? 

Charles Sims: So one of the things that we found was that electrifying that light duty vehicle fleet is what we would consider kind of a no regret strategy.

Because transportation is such a big source of emissions in the valley and the electric vehicle technology, the battery electric vehicles, the plug in hybrids, that technology is right there. You can debate about how much adoption we’re going to have in the valley, but it’s certainly nontrivial at this point.

And so that seemed to be the no regret strategy that number one was, trying to incentivize that adoption to reduce emissions from that transportation sector. We didn’t provide any sort of prescriptions on how to do that, right? But, one of the things that we have been working on here at the Baker School has been thinking about the chicken and egg problem between charging and electric vehicle adoption.

We know that people don’t want to adopt an electric vehicle if they don’t feel like charging infrastructure is sufficient to support all of their daily driving needs. But we also know that most people charge their electric vehicles at home. So there’s a problem here of where we need to roll out an infrastructure that may possibly be there to make people feel better, even though they may not be using it. They may only be using it maybe 5% of the time. 

Cortney Piper: Okay. How about some of those other key findings and again, I don’t think we can overemphasize this, but the approach of proposing a potential solution and not being prescriptive of how it’s done, I think provides a really good pathway.

Or it’s just some very clear direction for how communities, cities, counties, our valley can start thinking about decarbonization for sectors beyond the power sector. So, what were some other findings? 

Charles Sims: I think once we define sort of that inventory of where the greenhouse gases were coming from, the next step was to lay out the various pathways.

And so we looked at three different pathways, one that we call community resilience. So this was thinking a little bit about how you could redesign communities to make them more energy efficient, to reduce the amount of vehicle miles that were traveled. So you can think denser communities with more efficient buildings as being one particular example of that.

Another pathway that we considered was the accelerated electrification. So this was just saying, what if we had a future where almost everything in the valley was electrified within technical constraints? Right? 

The third was a low carbon breakthrough strategy. And what this was, was considering alternative technologies. We recognize that accelerate electrification is not going to. address all of the sources of greenhouse gases in the valley. There are several places that are just gonna be very, very hard to electrify. So heavy duty vehicles, for instance, are one place where electrification is thought to still be years and years down the road.

But you can also think of things like airline travel shipping and things. So there was another portfolio that was looking at the various low carbon fuels. And so you could think of hydrogen, you could think of advanced biofuels and things like that. They’re feeding into that category.

And then we had a combined scenario that said, well, obviously, these things aren’t going to happen in isolation. They’re all going to happen to some extent. But so what if we had a scenario that included all of those? And I think the take home message from that is that most of those pathways would get us close to net zero, and I say close because they had various impacts. So, the biggest bang for your buck obviously was the combined scenario. But a close second was the accelerated electrification scenario. That got us down to somewhere between 85-75% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which we think would put us well within net zero.

So, to remind everybody, right, net zero doesn’t mean that we’re actually eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions. Just means we’re getting them low enough that trees and soils and kind of manmade carbon sequestration can suck up the rest. So accelerated electrification got us the biggest reduction.

The one that saw the least reduction was the community resilience pathway. It still got us to emissions reductions that were roughly in the 60-70% range. But the key finding was that most of those are going to get us there. And especially when you combine them all. We are well within reach of getting to a net zero future for the valley. 

Cortney Piper: Talk about that community resilience piece a little bit more and why you think it produced the least amount of carbon reduction. 

Charles Sims: The main reason, I think, is because it had a very minimal impact on industry. Industry emissions were still almost unchanged.

It cut the transportation emissions probably about two-thirds. So there was a good chunk of emissions reduction there. There was a pretty significant amount of residential commercial building emissions reductions as well. But if you can remember, the residential commercial buildings were a relatively small part of our greenhouse gas inventory.

They were only responsible for about 7% of the emissions in the valley. So, It’s a very effective tool for what was a relatively small piece of the greenhouse gas pie. 

Cortney Piper: Charles, what is your hope for how this study will be used? Because it seems like you’re providing really great direction for state policy makers, city mayors, city councils, county commissions, that sort of thing where if they want to consider how could we make our community resilient?

How could we decrease? How could we start working towards decarbonization? It seems like you’ve given them a lot of really great ideas and priorities that they might then be able to go and attract various kinds of grants or other source of funding to help to start addressing those challenges. So what is your hope for how this study will be used?

Charles Sims: Our hope is that people will take these initial pathways and find the ones that most resonate with their community. So, I think the discussion about the community resilience is a perfect example, right? I may look at that and say that it doesn’t get me the largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but it is most likely to be the one that local communities are going to gravitate toward it’s going to be something that resonates with them.

We’re seeing lots of questions about rapid development in the Tennessee Valley right now. And so there’s lots of questions about building a new infrastructure and zoning questions, and land use questions that are all going to feed into that particular pathway. So, I think that’s a great example of where if I were just focused on greenhouse gas emissions solely, I might focus on, let’s electrify everything, but if I went to various communities across the valley, they may say, no, no, no, no, we would like to talk about this community resilience plan because this is hitting us right now.

And this is something that we need to address. So I think that that’s what I want people to take away is that there are multiple ways we can do this. It doesn’t have to be all about electric vehicles. But we would like to help them think through what some of those pathways might look like and how we can help inform what they might do moving forward.

To your point, I think a lot of these and each of these scenarios is going to involve lots of infrastructure investment. I mean look at all of these, and there’s, there’s certainly equal parts consumer behavior change, but there’s a lot of infrastructure investment as well. I think that most of that infrastructure investment support is probably coming from the federal government at this point.

And so helping communities understand how they can leverage some of those funds to make these investments and stay on these paths is really what I hope we’ll be able to help people with moving forward. 

Cortney Piper: Great. Well, what is next for the report? 

Charles Sims: So the report right now is available on the Baker School website.

So you can go and you can look at the various pathways and their effects. But as I’m like to say, the report itself is just step one. The follow on steps are really going to be helping different communities and different industries think about how they can take our findings. And boil them down to actual goalposts and mile markers that are relevant for them.

We’ve heard from lots of people along the way that sort of grandiose mile markers that we want to see 60 or 70% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 or 2035. And all these things are great. They don’t give you any sort of hard guidance on how a Murfreesboro or a Chattanooga would actually go about achieving that.

So I think the next steps we’ll be trying to plot out some pathways and some mile markers that are specific to actual cities and actual industries so that we can evaluate progress moving forward and ideally, like I said, not provide a silver bullet, but provide several different approaches that are going to be tailored to those individual communities and those individual industries.

Cortney Piper: Great. Well, we look forward to staying in touch and learning more as the Valley Pathways progresses. So, Charles Sims, Director of the Center for Energy, Transportation, and Environmental Policy at the Howard H. Baker, Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, thanks for coming on Energizing Tennessee and tell our listeners where they can learn more about you, the Baker School, and again, the Valley Pathways Study.

Charles Sims: You can learn more about all this at the Baker School website. If you go to the Baker School and click on the Center for Energy Transportation Environmental Policy, it will take you directly to all the report findings and will give you information about all the research that’s going on here at the center.

Cortney Piper: Thank you, Charles. 

Charles Sims: Thank you, Cortney. 

Cortney Piper: And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re glad to be your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. If you like what you heard, please share it with others or leave a rating and review.

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