Are renewable energy targets useful? Analysts dispute new study questioning their value – Utility Dive

Dive Brief:

  • A new study from the University of Queensland says that setting renewable energy targets can undermine sustainability efforts by causing decision-makers to lose sight of trade-offs when evaluating policy actions and to overlook the fundamental reasons for the targets.
  • The research, which was published in Nature Climate Change, concludes that more nuanced approaches than renewable energy targets are more effective, particularly those that focus on qualitative objectives.     
  • Paul Komor, with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, disagreed with the study’s principal findings, saying targets have led to large increases in renewable energy implementation. 

Dive Insight:

A new study from University of Queensland researchers says that renewable energy targets too often are developed without sufficient consideration of their entire impact, leading to unintended consequences that undermine the intentions behind the targets.

“Setting a target – a quantitative threshold to be attained, such as 80% wind energy — rather than an objective — a qualitative direction in which to go, such as working to maximize wind energy — can blind us to trade-offs when evaluating different policy actions,” said Scott Spillias, a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, in a press release. “They can also create psychological incentives to act quickly to implement them, causing decision-makers to lose sight of the more fundamental objectives that motivated the target in the first place.”

Spillias said renewable energy targets “may or may not be appropriate tools to use for renewable energy development,” but the study cautions against letting them obscure the larger mission.

“Renewable energy is likely going to be the best way to generate clean energy in the future, but importantly it should be recognized as merely the means to achieving that objective, rather than the ends in of itself,” Spillias said.

Komor said he disagrees with the study’s principal findings.

“Renewable energy targets provide a tangible, specific, quantitative and enforceable mechanism to move forward on renewables,” Komor said. “Over 150 countries have renewable energy targets of some sort. Experience varies, of course, but in some countries and regions, these targets have motivated action and resulted in large increases in renewable energy implementation.” 

Komor said targets are an imperfect policy tool, but he said that doesn’t make them ineffective.

“All tools are imperfect,” he said. “Climate change is an urgent issue, and we need to move ahead.”

Chad Laurent, principal at consulting firm Cadmus, said he has not observed that quantitative targets for renewables “alone” exacerbate other sustainability issues. He also said he hasn’t seen decision-makers lose sight of the fundamental objectives behind the targets. However, he said “some of these target-setting policies have been more successful than others in meeting stated policy goals. Sometimes what is envisioned in the policy-making stage is not exactly what ends up happening when those policies are enacted at the regulatory and agency level.”

Spillias said “rigorous analysis and stakeholder engagement” is crucial to avoiding unintended consequences — and ideally renewable energy targets would be considered as part of a holistic strategy.

“We argue that … a rigorous decision-making process should be undertaken to evaluate the trade-offs between different sustainability objectives with respect to a variety of possible targets and/or other policy instruments,” Spillias said.

Komor generally agreed with the study’s advocacy for stakeholder buy-in and decision-making that evaluates the trade-offs between different sustainability objectives, but also said, “To paraphrase, Voltaire, ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.'”

Laurent agreed that the most successful policies, including some target-based policies, are built with robust analysis and stakeholder engagement.

“In my experience, you need both, and stakeholder engagement is key,” Laurent said. “You have to have buy-in from policymakers, utilities, ratepayers and the community. This includes communities and populations impacted by new policy decisions, and those communities that have historically borne the most costs.”

Spillias said the stakes are high.

“The energy-related goals and targets we set for ourselves in the years ahead will guide the course of renewable energy development and will flow through to every sector of our society,” he said. “If, for whatever reason, we make mistakes in setting those goals, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, there will be real and enduring consequences for biodiversity, communities and economies.”

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