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History shows that technological change can occur not just in gradual sweeps but in dramatic, accelerating bursts.

Horse-drawn carriages gave way to cars after only about a decade of rapid adoption. Barely 40 years after a wood-framed plane first glided off the ground at Kitty Hawk, pilots broke the sound barrier, and reached the moon just over 20 years after that. And whether wreaking havoc on human and animal health or the ozone layer, harmful chemicals like DDT and chlorofluorocarbons were swiftly banned or replaced by more benign substitutes, after awareness grew about their effects.

Similar, if not greater, change is demanded today, thanks to the rapidly warming, unfamiliar climate that civilization now occupies.

So, what would a revamped electric grid look like if it materialized around St. Louis? What changes are needed if electricity generation in the area, and in the state, were to comply with goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a science-based mark that gives civilization its best chance to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change?

As of yet, clear plans or answers have not been mapped out.

But while there is ample room for Missouri’s grid to reduce its carbon footprint, there are also major obstacles that transformative change will need to navigate. Those hurdles beg their own questions about how to address them, and about the costs of being a laggard if Missouri does not quickly reverse its reliance on coal and join the wave of clean energy leaders.

Shaping the future

These, in many ways, are unprecedented times of change.

The planet’s five hottest years ever recorded all fall in the last five years. And carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for raising temperatures and destabilizing the climate, has crept to levels never before seen during humans’ time on Earth.

Humans caused the planetary changes that are set in motion, and human decisions will help shape where things go from here.

Science quantifies how much emissions need to fall in order to stay within the 1.5-degree limit that minimizes the severity of climate change. “Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a part of the United Nations. “This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.”

To make that happen, dynamic shifts are needed across whole tiers of society and industry.

Technologies and strategies to cut emissions do exist, and there may be growing political will to advance them on a scale that matches the urgency demanded by climate science. Mobilization efforts like the Green New Deal have launched climate change toward the top of national political conversation, likely cementing it as a marquee issue for the 2020 election cycle.

But the Green New Deal is only a call to action and does not outline any specific policies — rendering questions like “Do you support it?” and “Is it possible?” as inapplicable or imperfect. Instead, its overarching aim states that the U.S. should identify and adopt policies that are in line with science-based climate goals and that the country “must take a leading role in reducing emissions through economic transformation.”

That transformation is especially relevant when it comes to the electric grid around St. Louis and Missouri, where 73 percent of the state’s net electricity generation in 2018 came from coal — the most carbon-heavy fuel source — and where more of the material was burned than in any other state but Texas and Indiana, according to government data.

“Decarbonizing” the electric grid is not only seen as a prime opportunity to slice emissions, but also as a domino to supply other sectors — like transportation — with pathways to low-carbon or carbon-free electrification.

“The bigger questions end up being not just looking at the power sector, but looking at transportation and buildings,” said Ashok Gupta, a Kansas City-based senior energy economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “My view of the world is eventually everything has to be electrified. ... That implicates the grid and how the grid of the future looks.”

Local changes

Around much of the U.S., the clean energy transition is an established trend. But in Missouri — and particularly around St. Louis — the phrase can seem like more of a distant idea or slogan than an ongoing phenomenon.

Even as other states — including some neighbors — have seen coal-fired generation diminish or get leapfrogged by alternatives like natural gas and renewables, it has held steady in Missouri, accounting for a dominant chunk of power that has hardly budged in decades.

Still, there are signs of change brewing, as utilities in the state ramp up investments to install wind energy and, in some cases, seek to retire coal plants at the same time.

The St. Louis-based electric company, Ameren, is among those making a push for wind. The move follows its first major commitment to renewable energy announced in late 2017, when the company released a plan to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and 35 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

Leading up to that announcement — which called for adding at least 700 megawatts of wind energy by 2020, equal to about 10 percent of its total generation — the company had faced some criticism and investor pressure for its reliance on coal, which accounts for about two-thirds of its electricity production.

Today, Ameren’s wind acquisition is ahead of schedule in terms of both generating capacity and monetary investment. Its three projects proposed to date total 857 megawatts and have cleared the company’s $1 billion minimum commitment by about 40 percent.

But Ameren’s road to lower emissions will get tougher, especially when it comes to decisions about retiring its fleet of aging coal generation, the bulk of which is scheduled to stay on line decades into the future. Meramec — its oldest and smallest plant, used mainly as a “peaker” when demand is greatest — is set to retire in 2022. Sioux is set to follow in 2034, along with half of the units at Labadie, the state’s largest coal plant, in 2037. The other half of Labadie, and the company’s Rush Island plant, are currently slated to remain operational into the early to mid-2040s.

Keeping the plants running so long raises environmental and economic concerns. But in Missouri, a key problem remains: Earlier retirements would create an issue of stranded assets.

That’s because customers of monopolized utilities like Ameren are stuck paying for past coal investments approved by state regulators, even if alternatives like wind already look like a more attractive option economically. In other words, cheaper and cleaner forms of potential generation aren’t being pursued because existing coal plants have decades of depreciation remaining on their price tags. Ameren, for instance, said that as of 2016, there was about $2.5 billion in remaining value across its four St. Louis-area coal plants.

That issue looms as perhaps the biggest obstacle if a clean energy transition is to accelerate substantially in Missouri, though other factors like transmission hurdles also exist.

Even so, Ameren says that its current aims to slash emissions are consistent with goals that would limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. And in written reports, the utility says its plan has flexibility “to meet more stringent emissions constraints,” though company representatives did not say what would compel it to do so.

“We don’t have any specifics around a 1.5-degree (plan) yet,” said Matt Michels, Ameren’s director of corporate planning, adding that industry research partners were looking into different emission scenarios.

But some experts said such prolonged coal usage is not only incompatible with 1.5-degree climate goals, but could also thwart Ameren’s own 2-degree target.

“If the coal fleet doesn’t retire, those other things really don’t matter,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, referring to efforts to improve energy efficiency or transmission. “The amount of CO2 that coal fleets put into the atmosphere can kind of dwarf those.”

Asked if the company expected to run major coal plants for another quarter-century, Ameren officials stood by the currently outlined retirement dates.

“We have our plan now. It’s something we still believe in,” said Michels, noting that reassessment over time is possible.

Costs to customers

Beyond its climate implications, dragging out the lifetime of coal plants to avoid stranded assets is also a big deal to customers.

A growing list of examples from around Missouri shows that cities, companies and individuals seek renewable energy, and especially wind power, instead of electricity from an aging coal fleet. Those entities have company shopping for alternatives to coal, given nationwide trends away from the resource — often guided by economics.

“Seventy-five percent or so of current coal plants are money losers,” said David Littell, a senior advisor for the Regulatory Assistance Project, an organization that aims to accelerate the shift to a “clean, reliable and efficient” energy future. “(If Ameren’s plants are in that majority), ratepayers will be paying more simply as a result of Ameren keeping them open.”

Similar numbers were echoed in recent testimony from Daniel Hall, a commissioner for the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates Ameren and the state’s electric monopolies. He told Missouri lawmakers that “74% of the existing U.S. coal generation capacity could be replaced today at an immediate savings to customers,” citing a recent study from the policy firm, Energy Innovation, that compared coal’s viability to new, local wind or solar. The percentage would grow to 86% by 2025, the study added — though it did not consider potential stranded asset value.

For customers, the situation will only prove more untenable with time.

“Are we going to keep paying for something that’s more expensive rather than something that’s less expensive?” said Gupta. “It can go on for a while, but eventually the momentum shifts.”

Clinging to coal over newer types of generation may already exact a toll on Missouri’s competitiveness, for reasons beyond cost savings alone.

“If you’re not on the cutting edge, you lose the economic advantage of developing that intellectual capital,” said Littell. “If you’re a laggard, you’re generally importing that expertise from other areas.”

If in doubt, join the herd.

“Basically, if everyone else is doing it and you’re not, then you’re probably missing out,” added Rhodes.

Future efforts

Ideas are circulating about how to shift Missouri toward a grid of the future, even if certain policy actions have yet to be taken.

On the matter of stranded assets, a financing tool called securitization is gaining some attention in the state legislature. Used in dozens of other states, the technique sells bonds to cover utilities’ stranded costs in facilities that are operational but economically uncompetitive.

Hall said he considers the concept “a potentially powerful tool in the toolbox” to address the issue. But even if a bill to enact securitization isn’t passed, he suggested that a case could emerge in which the Missouri PSC deems it imprudent for utilities not to swap early coal retirements for new alternatives.

“There could be instances where that’s just not in the interest of ratepayers,” Hall said. “I would anticipate that if the utilities don’t respond to this changing environment, commissions will.”

Regulators may also need to rearrange incentives and redefine the role that electric utilities should play.

Gupta likened an ideal role of utilities to an orchestra conductor, tasked with bringing in wholesale generation at certain times, and coaxing consumers to behave in certain ways.

“Somebody’s got to manage the grid,” said Gupta. “It can’t just be randomly operated.”

Eventually, plans for deep decarbonization will reach consequential forks in the road. One is whether to aim for renewable energy to meet 80, 90 or 100% of generation needs, or to pair renewables with a mix of technologies, like an interim transition from coal to natural gas, and the pursuit of nuclear power, hydroelectric generation and carbon capture projects.

Each approach has its own complex costs and benefits.

“We have to find the set of trade-offs that we’re willing to accept,” said Craig Aubuchon, a member of the technical advisory committee to St. Louis’ 100% Clean Energy Advisory Board, which oversees its goal to use entirely clean energy by 2035.

But for now, Missouri isn’t far enough along to worry about that. What’s more important, experts say, is that the state’s grid makes more initial progress on decarbonization.

Aubuchon explains that Missouri’s low percentage of renewable energy still leaves “room in the tent” for different long-term strategies. But he says today’s clean energy goals from cities like St. Louis or other entities can shape how those decisions unfold.

“Intermediate milestones matter, because they influence the pace of change Ameren pursues,” Aubuchon said.

Changing sooner rather than later is most beneficial, added Rhodes — especially for reaping “the lowest-hanging carbon fruit” of switching away from coal.

“The sooner we do it,” he said, “the easier the transition will be.”

Editor's note: Reporters from 14 newsrooms across the Midwest published independently written stories about the local challenges and opportunities related to climate change. The project, coordinated by InsideClimate News, tackles what is becoming a defining political and economic issue in a region that has a major role to play.

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Reporter covering energy and the environment for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.