Bumps Along the Energy-Transition Road

There will be many bumps along the road as America transitions to a clean power system. That’s the pragmatic assessment offered by Lori Bennear, the Juli Plant Grainger Associate Professor of Energy Economics and Policy and Executive Vice Dean at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Our complete conversation is here.

As you probably know, in these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs, who are working at the intersection of economics and environmental policy.  Professor Lori Bennear belongs in this group. 

Bennear, whose academic research focuses on evaluating environmental policies and improving methods and techniques for conducting these evaluations, has devoted recent years to studying issues relating to environmental justice and just tranistion, particularly surrounding the “winners” and “losers” who will emerge from the clean energy transition.

“We are in the process of [a] … once in many, many generations transition in our energy system, the likes of which we can’t … really imagine. But it’s going to involve significant land use changes, and changes to the way electricity is generated,” she says. “A lot of that is exciting from an environmental standpoint because they’re lower carbon. We have this opportunity to do this in a way that extends those benefits more evenly across the population than the fossil fuel-based energy system did, and potentially doesn’t centralize the costs of that energy system in particular communities in the same way that the fossil fuel energy system did. But we have to do that consciously from the beginning.”

Bennear admits that some areas of the country that are economically dependent on fossil fuels, including her home state of Wyoming, will suffer in the near term and accommodations must be made to reduce the negative impacts on those communities. She also remarks that there may be other downsides associated with some of the new energy sources which must be taken into account.

“While they’re good for carbon, they’re not perfectly great along every environmental dimension,” she states. “There’s waste associated with them. There’s mining associated with them. We need to take that in holistically from the beginning.”

Discussing the role of regulation in high-risk industries such as offshore oil exploration, Bennear emphasizes that government can only do so much.

“We need a series of both safety systems and safety processes that are tied to a safety culture, only some of which regulation can actually really dictate. That’s a hard pill to swallow, because on the one hand … we’re still dependent on these industries in many ways,” she remarks. “There have to be processes in place that reward people for valuing safety. That’s a harder thing. There’s a huge role for industry in that, which also gets some folks in the environmental community, gets their backs up because they feel like industry has too much say over what these regulatory processes should be. But they also have the expertise and the experience to actually make them happen.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Lori Bennear, which is the 36th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.