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  March 7, 2018

Can Maryland Reach 100% Renewable Energy by 2035?

A new clean energy bill would give Maryland 17 years to achieve 100% renewable electricity. The goal is well within the state's reach, says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
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DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. Maryland has been hit hard by extreme weather. Jackknifing from snow to a record matching 76 degrees in February within just a couple of days. And last week's severe wind storms left 400,000 people without power. All of this severe weather makes it easy to see the impacts of climate change in Maryland. And some people are trying to reverse it.

On Monday the Maryland General Assembly heard the 100% Clean Renewable Energy and Equity Act sponsored by Montgomery County's Delegate Shane Robinson. The bill would require all of Maryland's electricity to come from clean sources by 2035. To talk about that bill, I'm joined by Dr. Arjun Makhijani. He is an electrical and nuclear engineer who is the President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. And he's also the author of several books including the recent Prosperous, Renewable Maryland: A Roadmap for a Healthy, Economical, and Equitable Energy Future. We'll discuss his analysis of the bill, which assesses its feasibility. Thanks so much for joining me today.

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: You're very welcome. My pleasure.

DHARNA NOOR: So, before we get into the specifics, can you just generally tell me about this bill? Why is it important for Maryland to get to 100% renewable energy by 2035 and then what's the significance of that year, of the year 2035?

A. MAKHIJANI: Well, I think the year 2035 is the earliest year in technical feasibility and economic feasibility that we can achieve 100% renewable electricity. And it's extremely important, as you've noted with the extreme weather events, globally to drastically reduce carbon emissions and in the West, the United States as the largest cumulative emitter of carbon dioxide over the decades, there’s a greater responsibility here. So, 2035 an earlier date for electricity, renewable electricity, also prepares us to go renewable in transportation by electrifying it and also renewable in heating and water heating by electrifying that. So, we can reduce CO2 on all fronts.

DHARNA NOOR: So, if this bill passes, where will Maryland's energy come from? What's considered renewable?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: So, in this bill renewable would be solar, wind, small hydro and tidal. It's very much in conformity, strict conformity with the intergovernmental panel on climate change that says renewable energy is that which is regenerated by natural processes at a rate equal to or faster than it's being used. They include some other things but really in the easiest and strictest interpretation solar, wind, hydro, small hydro, tidal, are clearly qualified as renewable energy.

DHARNA NOOR: And notably absent from that list is incinerators, which I know that here in Baltimore and across Maryland there's been a lot of opposition to the use of incinerators. But some people are probably wondering how reliable wind and solar are. So, I mean, what happens if it's not windy for instance or the sun isn't out? Are these sources of energy actually reliable?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: So, let me say one word about incinerators. Trash is not renewable. Trash is a human artifact. It is not regenerated by natural processes. So, let's not pretend that trash is renewable. Secondly, wind and solar are reliable and not reliable. They're reliable in the sense that we know that sun shines in the daytime and not at night. We can predict wind, as we saw the weather predictions are pretty good. So, wind can be predicted but of course not controlled. So, in the coming days wind might be much lower than in the past week or two. So, we have to adjust for that variability.

First of all, we are a small part of a very large grid, call the PJM grid that extends all the way west of Chicago. So, if we do 100% solar and wind, it doesn't mean that when the sun isn't shining there's nothing else there. Secondly, the storage technology, smart grid technology, demand response and peaking of renewable energy sources are all technologies that are available today and what we need is to configure them in the appropriate framework. And the bill does contain a mandate for the Public Service Commission to hold what we call a Grid of the Future proceeding. The Grid of the Future with solar and wind won't look like the grid of today. It will have wires, of course. But many people have solar, they'll have batteries, they'll exchange power with the grid. There'll be suppliers as well as consumers.

Like me, I have solar on my rooftop. So, but more complicated, I could have batteries as well, I could have energy storage in other ways that I could have hotter water than normal when there's excess supply of wind and then cooler water than normal when there's not enough. So, that's why we need a smart grid. The Public Service Commission would hold a proceeding to sort of create a roadmap for a smart grid. So, we don't need to worry about whether it's going to be reliable or not. We're at less than 5% renewable energy today, solar and wind in this state. Iowa has more than 40%.

DHARNA NOOR: You said that Maryland is at less than 5% currently?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: That is correct. In terms of solar and wind energy in this state we're at less than 5%. Iowa has more than 40%. Denmark has 50%. So, you know, we can go, leap forward by leaps and bounds in solar and wind energy and not have to worry. So, we have time to put in place a Grid of the Future and also increase renewable energy very rapidly. I'm not worried about technical feasibility.

DHARNA NOOR: I think some people might hear that though and think, all right, we only have 17 years to jump 95%, we have to go from 5% to 100% in just 17 years. So, what are some of the ways that that's possible?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Actually, that was an initial hesitation of mine until I looked at it. So, I looked at other states and areas where there has been vigorous ambitious growth of renewable energy. So, a large part of our renewable supply would come from offshore wind in... So, I looked at one of the targets for offshore wind in other states that are already in more regulation or executive order. Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and the targets we're proposing are entirely in line with what has already been set. We consulted, I consulted with the offshore wind industry so the targets in the bill are seen as feasible by the people who would build the offshore wind turbines and installations.

For solar we have done already 300 megawatts a year, two years ago. We gradually ramp up solar. The thing is to set the targets in a way that ramps up renewables ambitiously but achievable. And that requires some economic incentives and it also requires the legal targets going years into the future so the industry has certainty about their finances. Currently, we don't have that kind of certainty because we don't have those kinds of targets.

DHARNA NOOR: And you said that you've been speaking with people in the offshore wind industry, in the solar industry, but fossil fuels are significant to Maryland's economy. For instance, coal exports are on the rise and coal is a stable export here in Baltimore at Baltimore's ports, so what kinds of push back have you gotten from other industries like the coal industry for instance?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well I'm not, I'm a technical person so I'm not necessarily the person who'd be the point person to get the push back but so far as I know that there's no push back from the coal export industry because this bill doesn't involve itself in the normal commerce of any commodity, like whether it's coal or cars. Both of which are exported from Baltimore. So, it doesn't ban coal, it doesn't even ban coal from being burned in Maryland's coal fired power plants. Those plants could generate electricity and export electricity to other states. We would be sort of a net zero state. That is we would have enough electricity in 2035 that is renewable to meet all our needs but it doesn't mean that every single electron that we buy will come [from] Maryland. Some of our electrons will be generated in the Midwest for example, probably. Some of our imported solar may come from North Carolina but our renewable energy purchases will equal our electricity consumption.

And actually, our imports of electricity will be somewhat less than what they are today. Today we import about 40% of our electricity requirements from other states.

DHARNA NOOR: So, how much energy will need to be generated? Does that mean that Maryland can really generate as much energy from renewables as it currently does from fossil fuels or will there need to be cutbacks in the amount of energy we use overall?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, the renewable energy potential in Maryland is many times what we could possibly need for all purposes, even those purposes like space heating and cars that use fossil fuels today. We have typically like almost every place, immense renewable energy resources in the United States. Maryland is actually not even one of the sort of shining examples of great renewable energy resources like Texas for solar and wind, or North Dakota and South Dakota for wind, but we have far more than we need and not necessarily the highest quality but solar and wind now are so economical that they're economical even for us.

DHARNA NOOR: And there's another bill in Maryland right now that the Maryland General Assembly is considering. The Clean Energy and Jobs Act, and that also aims for the use of more renewables. That would change the state's renewable portfolio standard mechanisms to reach 50% renewables by 2030. And some people would say that that's more politically feasible. So, what's your response to that?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, I don't get paid to make politically feasible judgment. I only do technically feasible judgments. So, when Maryland enacted it's renewable portfolio standard over a decade ago it was the leading kind of idea to promote renewable energy. Renewable energy was very expensive, you're putting more money into the market by buying the certificate. So, what we do now is we don't actually buy the renewable energy. We buy the certificates. For solar, those certificates representing solar have to be generated within the state. For almost everything else, and also for incineration of trash, but for everything else we can be buying hydro power from some other state or electricity from burning biomass in some other state or wind energy from North Dakota.

We're not actually buying the energy. We're buying the piece of paper, electronic certificates, that represent the energy and then the energy is used by others, purchased by others. Right now, with wind and solar being economical we should be buying both energy and get the certificates along bundled with it. I think that's the best way to promote renewable energy rapidly and actually see growth in the industry. Also, by promoting more in state solar and offshore wind.

So, this bill contains vigorous targets for offshore wind, more than the 50% bill. We need those to get the manufacturing infrastructure in Baltimore. Without those ambitious targets I don't believe that we stand a very good chance because we have competition from New Jersey and New York and Massachusetts and possibly in the upcoming years from other states. Wind companies are not going to set up manufacturing where they don't have a pipeline of projects. So, that's a very, very important thing in this bill and that's why the bill yesterday during testimony was actually endorsed by the business network for offshore wind. A very strong letter was sent to the committee endorsing this bill.

DHARNA NOOR: So, my final question is this all comes as last week the Prince George's County Council voted unanimously in support of moving towards 100% clean energy by 2035 and eliminating dirty sources of energy from Maryland's current renewable energy program. Late last year, Montgomery County's Council passed a resolution to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2035. So, there is in some sense an uptake in the support for renewable energy.

But at the same time the Trump administration has been at the federal level rolling back so many environmental protections. For instance, the proposed budget for 2019 alone proposes cuts to research on renewables and other programs designed to combat climate change. So, can the federal government do anything to stop this bill from passing despite all of this support?

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: No. The federal government can't do anything to jeopardize this bill from passing. This is a bill in the Maryland legislature, this ball is squarely in the Maryland legislature's court. Fortunately, electricity policy is largely shaped at the state level and we can mandate 100% renewable electricity. The economics for solar and wind are there. Technology is also there. We don't need federal research and development to make solar and wind more economical. Research and development is always helpful. It's always helpful if its cheaper. For instance, research and development in batteries has been very important but this is not the only country where research and development has happened.

So, if the federal government slows down research in batteries for example, there are other countries that are doing it. China, for instance, already the largest market for electric vehicles in the world, mostly made in China. They're also, of course, excellent electric vehicles made in the United States. So, it's unfortunate that the federal government is cutting back on research and development and on renewable energy but I think this bill can go ahead without any problem and we can achieve the Grid of the Future.

Now, we do need to work with our grid operator and PJM and with the Maryland Public Service Commission to make sure that the road to 100% renewable electricity is reliable and safe and economical but I think the bill contains sufficient provisions to ensure that.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay. We'll keep following this bill as it goes to second reader. Dr. Makhijani thanks so much for being here today.

DR. ARJUN MAKHIJANI: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate being on your network.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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