The world’s need for more energy while generating less carbon dioxide (CO2) is an extraordinary challenge. The Shell Powering Progress Together (PPT) event in San Francisco, California, made for the perfect setting for a discussion about the challenges of such an undertaking.

“More and more eyes are on California, waiting to see if its energy transition efforts will succeed or fail,” said moderator Mark Lee, Director of think tank SustainAbility, which co-hosted the event with Shell.

Lee pointed out that California is second from the bottom in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced per capita across the USA, a credit to its success in decarbonising its electric grid and transport sector.

Offering renewable energy

Chris Benjamin, Director of Corporate Sustainability for Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves electricity to 16 million people in north and central California, said 70% of the electricity they provide is now free of greenhouse gases.

Erica Mackie from Grid Alternatives, a non-profit organization that brings solar technology to underdeveloped communities, stressed that the energy transition should offer underserved communities “a place at the front of the line when it comes to the benefits and opportunities that flow from a cleaner energy system”.

Marin Clean Energy was founded to increase the take-up of renewable energy sources in northern California. It offers customers the opportunity to buy electricity that is supplied by 50 to 100% renewable sources.

Its CEO, Dawn Weisz, explained how the company quickly managed to double the amount of renewable energy used by their customers while keeping costs competitive.

Weisz also refuted the suggestion that disadvantaged communities care less than affluent communities about where their power comes from. Instead she explained how residents in the lower income city of Richmond, a city in western Contra Costa County, were responsible for MCE’s biggest increase in their “Deep Green” 100% renewable product.

This, she argued, showed they were willing to spend slightly more for clean energy.

California’s effort to decarbonise its transport sector, however, illustrates many of the challenges seen in other parts of the world: the so-called “chicken and egg” scenario”.

While on one hand, the state leads the USA in adoption of hybrids, fully electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered vehicles, speakers acknowledged that the infrastructure to support this fleet of low- and zero-carbon automobiles is still lagging.

Shell has two hydrogen filling stations in Los Angeles, and is working in partnership with Toyota, with the support of the State of California, to further develop its hydrogen refuelling network. It was recently awarded $8 million to develop the first hydrogen-truck refueling station at the Port of Long Beach.

Shell has also started offering electric vehicle fast-charging at some forecourts in Europe and recently announced the purchase of New Motion, one of the continent's largest providers for charging points of electric cars.

Policymakers in California hope to have at least 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Currently, there are just 300,000 – and the biggest obstacle is a lack of charging stations. Heavy duty trucks are responsible for a disproportionate share of the carbon dioxide emissions from transport.

Thomas Healy, CEO of Hyliion, a Texas-based startup offering truck fleets the ability to turn their vehicles into hybrids, said in the event’s opening panel, that he is often turned away by fleet executives who are reluctant to pay for this technology – despite its fuel and emissions savings – unless it is backed by a government subsidy.

Looking ahead

Shell recently published the Sky Scenario, a challenging but plausible pathway for society to meet the goal of the Paris climate agreement – namely, keeping global temperature gains below 2⁰ Celsius by 2070.

This provided context to discuss crucial steps for the construction of carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities to contain the emissions from industrial processes that are difficult to decarbonise. Indeed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that keeping the planet under 2⁰C would cost global society 140% more without large-scale deployment of CCS facilities.

So-called nature-based climate solutions, such as forestation also had a role to play in faster decarbonisation. “Land use rarely gets mentioned in relation to climate change, especially given what an important role it has to play,” said Megan Guy, Director of Corporate Engagement for The Nature Conservancy, a USA-based non-profit organisation.

Pointing to a recent study by TNC and its scientific partners, Guy explained that the carbon storage from natural climate solutions could account for 37% of worldwide progress toward keeping temperature rise below 2⁰C by 2030; and yet renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean transport receive roughly 30 times more spending.

In the day’s final panel, Shell Executive Vice President of New Energies Mark Gainsborough explained that the climate challenge was not a question of which single technology to select, but what combination. “To get to net-zero emissions, it will take everything in the technological bag kit being deployed – at a massive scale,” said Gainsborough. “It’s obvious that for that to happen you will have to have a level of collaboration between civil societies, customers, governments at a level of coherence that we have never seen before.”

Shell Powering Progress Together is one component of a larger festival, Make the Future Americas. The four-day public event at the Sonoma Raceway in California featured bright energy ideas that address the global energy challenge: how to meet the energy demands of the future, while producing fewer CO2 emissions.

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