State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Hope for a Decarbonized Future

Photo: Kenueone

By Mira Baum

Chris Clack, CEO and founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, is optimistic about the future of the energy grid. An expert in mathematics, statistics, and optimization, he has tasked his company with the monumental task of modeling renewable energy generation. Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE) forecasts solar and wind capacities, seeking to understand the impending and necessary energy transition to renewables, and optimize the trajectory of that transition through new modeling software. Its goal is a lofty one: to decarbonize the energy grid in the United States.

Clack recently spoke in a seminar hosted by Columbia’s Earth Institute and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering, introduced Clack and his lecture. Clack’s impressive résumé made his ambitious objective seem attainable, perhaps even easy.

Clack walked us through his methods. He created a software called WIS:dom (Weather-Informed energy Systems: for design, operations, and markets), which uses data on weather, electricity infrastructure, and consumer demand to show how to maximize the capacity of wind and solar generation sites. WIS:dom is the only model of its kind, and boasts new methods of calculating power and energy generation.

Clack offered a fresh perspective on what is to come. Some people suggest that we need to remodel and rethink the energy grid in order to account for increased demand in the future, and to compensate for a system that is outdated and at risk of failure. Clack suggests an alternative. He believes that working within the current grid is the cheapest and most efficient way to lower emissions.

Every sector of the economy needs energy to function. Although many currently rely on fossil fuels for energy, VCE hopes that its modeling will enable as many of these sectors as possible to convert to electricity, so that they can be powered by renewables instead. He spoke of this with conviction. Calm and optimistic, he inspired certainty in the audience. I couldn’t help but feel confident that this method would work—a rare feeling nowadays in regards to carbon emissions.

The second half of Clack’s lecture focused on the astounding results of VCE’s modeling. He predicts that if we can increase storage capacities for wind and solar energy, increased demand will follow. Working within the grid for the eastern United States, VCE foresees that by 2050, coal and gas will make up 50 percent of energy generation, while the other half will consist of renewables. Further out, the model predicts an eventual net energy generation made up of 0 percent coal, increased nuclear power, and almost all renewable energies.

This, on its own, will reduce climate-warming emissions by 70 percent. That number, in light of the recent discussions about the urgency of acting on climate change, is a welcome prospect.

Mira Baum is a student in the undergraduate program in Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and an intern in the director’s office at the Earth Institute.

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