Lisa Jacobson
President, Business Council for Sustainable Energy

The U.S. economy kicked into high gear in 2018, and the results were evident in nearly every energy sector including overall demand, power generation, energy prices and carbon emissions. So, what does this mean for the movement to sustainable energy?

In this edition of the Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks to Lisa Jacobson, the president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a coalition of companies and trade associations representing the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors.

Every year, the council along with Bloomberg New Energy Finance puts out “Sustainable Energy in America Factbook,” providing annual information on key trends in the U.S. energy sectors. The 2019 edition of the report, the seventh compiled, illustrates the extent to which the U.S. energy picture is changing and what it indicates for the nation’s economy.

Lisa has headed the Business Council for Sustainable Energy for about 15 years, after having worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide. She is a member of the Department of Energy’s State Energy Efficiency Steering Committee, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee, and the Gas Technology Institute’s Public Interest Advisory Committee.

She has represented energy industries before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and testified before Congress. In fact, she had just appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee regarding the 2019 factbook when she and Bill spoke at her office in Washington.

They talked about the latest findings in the various energy sectors as well as a couple of questions the report raises about energy productivity in the U.S. and the absence of federal policy on climate change.

view transcript


Bill Loveless: The U.S. energy economy kicked into high gear in 2018. And the results were evident in nearly every energy sector including overall demand, power generation, energy prices and carbon emissions. So, what does this mean for the movement to sustainable energy? Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange. A weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. From Washington, I’m Bill Loveless. Our guest today is Lisa Jacobson, the president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a coalition of companies and trade associations representing the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors. Every year the council along with Bloomberg New Energy Finance puts out a sustainable energy in America fact book providing annual information on key trends in the U.S. energy sectors. The 2019 edition of the report, the 7th compiled illustrates the extent to which the U.S. energy picture is changing and what it indicates for the nation’s economy. Lisa has headed the business council for sustainable energy for about 15 years. After having working on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide. She’s a member of the department of energy, state energy efficiency steering committee. The U.S. trade representatives, trade and environment policy advisory committee and the gas technology institutes public interest advisory committee. She’s represented energy industries before the United Nations’ framework convention on climate change and testified before Congress. In fact, she had just appeared before the Senate energy and natural resources committee regarding the 2019 fact book when we met at her office in Washington. We talked about the latest findings on the various energy sectors as well as a couple of questions the report raises about energy productivity in the United States and the absence of federal policy on climate change. Well, here is our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Lisa Jacobson, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.


Lisa Jacobson: Thank you. I’m really honored to be with you this morning.


Bill Loveless: Well, I appreciate that you took the time. I know, it’s been a busy time right now with the fact book just coming out and all of that. But before we get into that, you’ve been with the business council for sustainable energy for some 15 years or so now. How did you get into this line of work?


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I started working in policy as a congressional staff. Although, I wasn’t working on energy issues. I was working on you know, kind of healthcare and education. But I could see that you know, the private sector and global environmental issues like climate change were beginning to take hold and I really, we needed solutions. So after graduates school where I focused more on international issues, I went to work for the business counsel because they were one of the few organizations that brought businesses to the international global climate change negotiations and I wanted to be a part of that. That was right in the lead up to Kyoto. So which is a… Yeah, 1997 which was a seminal year which produced the Kyoto protocol which obviously, you know, had some challenges in terms of implementation especially here in the U.S. But you know, was a landmark agreement and really put global climate change on the map. I wanted to be a part of the policymaking discussion that led to Kyoto and the work that we’ve done since and I wanted to work with the business community because I think it’s critical that the private sector be a part of the development of policy because they are the ones that are really gonna bring the capital and implement a lot of these policies on the ground.


Bill Loveless: Right and we are talking some 20 or so years since Kyoto happened. A lot of attention is being paid to this issue of sustainable energy these days. But how has that climate so to speak changed in terms of the consideration of this topic over that time?


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I mean, I think the science is continuing to show that this is the most important global issue we face and it touches every aspect of our societies. So, I think the tension was strong in the 1990s on climate change but I think it’s penetrated must more deeply now. I think looking back over the last couple of decades, it’s been a rapid and significant transformation in particular in the U.S. power sector. We are now using much more diverse and clean resources and I think that is a testament to the importance of issues like air quality and climate change.


Bill Loveless: Right, right. And of course, a lot of that is illustrated in the fact book which is done each year by the council and by the Bloomberg new energy finance. Well, let’s look at some of the trends that are identified in this edition of the fact book. By and large the trends that have been identified in previous edition of this work but it’s still important to see what’s, how they are continuing to transpire. So let’s look at them in terms of natural gas, renewable energy.


Lisa Jacobson: Right. Well, I mean, the council focuses on energy efficiency and natural gas and renewable energy primarily but the sustainable energy in America fact book looks at energy comprehensively and it also focuses a great deal on the power sector. But we have a new section on transportation. So, for your listeners that might not be familiar with the fact book, just want them to know that, you know, transportation emissions and change in the transportation sector is occurring, we’re tracking that. You know, so in terms of some of the longer term trends, you know, the 2019 fact book which has data that goes right till the end of 2018. So we are talking about really up to date data showed that, you know, renewable energy is continuing to expand. We are at 18% of the electricity mix with renewable energy. Pretty much on par with our nuclear fleet which is about 19% at the end of 2018. You know, natural gas also is really increased significantly. We have about 35% of the generation mix at the end of 2018 and you know, that’s, like a 10% increase over the last decade. So, I mean, we are just seeing significant growth. I think, you have to also look at energy efficiency.


Bill Loveless: Often overlooked, I think.


Lisa Jacobson: Yeah, I mean, energy efficiency gains across the economy are helping us, you know, manage, you know, energy consumption gains in the power sector and with a number of charts in the fact book that just show these hockey stick, upticks in activity whether it would be on policy or in investment and in particular, you know, for energy efficiency, we have a one year lag in terms of the data. So the new data is from 2017. It showed record levels of energy efficiency investment by utility, by energy savings performance contracts. For other initiatives like pace. So, I mean, it’s really, you have to look at the supply side and the demand side together and then what you see, you know is decarburizing electricity system. So that is a continued trend. We’re also seeing, you know, over the last couple of decades our energy economy is much productive. So, energy productivity which looks at GDP growth and energy consumption. I mean, we just had this remarkable diversion where we’ve been able to grow our economy without significant increases in energy consumption.


Bill Loveless: Right, right.


Lisa Jacobson: You know, we’re gonna talk about this. 2018 had some different dynamics but and I look forward to talking to you about it because we’re looking at the data very closely and trying to understand, you know how 2018 fits into these sustained long term trends.


Bill Loveless: Right, yeah and I do want to break down some of those things because while the trend more or less continue, there were a couple of places where you guys kind of put little asterisks to bring attention to things that you feel deserve close scrutiny this year. Let’s look at a little bit closer some of those commodity, energy commodities. As you say, natural gas boomed, it was the most new gas-fired generating capacity added in 14 years reaching a record 35% of U.S. capacity. At the same time gas production hit record highs as well. And renewables as you mentioned grew in importance. Wind now, second largest source of zero-carbon energy essentially in level with nuclear energy. Coal, coal’s decline continued. It’s now 27% of capacity. That’s the lowest level in the post World War II era and as the book notes, now 13 gigawatts has been announced or completed retirements. And that’s the second most in U.S. history. So, there I guess we’re seeing the trends that have been ongoing for some time now.


Lisa Jacobson: Yes. And you know, when we look at. We have a figure in the factbook, it’s one of my favorites. It shows built in the electricity sector. So capacity build over the last 25 years. And it shows you know what has been brought online. And when you look at the last decade, it is renewables and natural gas. In fact, you know, over 94% of the new build in the last 25 years has been renewables and natural gas and we know that these are very long-lived investments. So that’s point to structural changes for us. Not just, you know, short term dynamics but this is really now built in to our electricity system.


Bill Loveless: Right. And speaking of emissions the power sector continue to decarbonize electricity consumed rose to 2.2%. But CO2 emissions rose just 0.6% and as the book notes of the power sector has cut CO2 emissions 25% over the past decade. So, again there has been a pretty good track record in the power sector when it comes to decarbonizing. But there is things that need to be watched right in terms of carbon emissions in other sectors.


Lisa Jacobson: Yeah, and so I would say, you know, because of things like shale gas production which have led to very low, historic lows in some years, natural gas prices which have benefited, you know the opportunity to reduce emissions in the electric sector. You know, certainly, cost reductions for renewable energy. Plus new opportunities for corporate players to get involved. To expand demand for renewable energy and you know, the sustained focus both at the federal level and the state level on energy efficiency have been recipe to get us where we are with the power sector and I think that will continue but you know, there is still more emission reductions that we need in the power sector as well as other aspects of the economy which is what I think you’re getting.


Bill Loveless: The other aspects because as energy consumption, overall energy consumption expanded, so did this USCO footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions rose an estimated 2.5% in 2018 driven by increases in building and industrial sectors.


Lisa Jacobson: Yes and also transportation which now, for I think for the second year in a row is the largest proportional share of our emissions in economy. So you know, what are we gonna do in all of those areas. Those are areas tend to be, you know, they tend to require a little more policy focus. But you know, one of our main message is look at the power sector, I mean, it really is a combination of the private sector policy and then you know, kind of these innovations that have occurred with technology all you know, spinning around coming together, feeding off each other and we’ve seen results. And so when we look at transportation or the industrial sector or what is you know, being done in buildings, we really need to think about how policy fits in and how it can leverage, you know, the private sector’s activities and so…


Bill Loveless: It’s a lesson to be learned for these other sectors from the power sector.


Lisa Jacobson: I think so. I mean, I think also long term focus, I mean, clearly in the power sector, you know, we’ve had a lot of different policy levers in place. Local, state, regional, federal and they all haven’t all been working perfectly in concert. A few years ago, we used to talk about, oh, we’ve got this patchwork and it’s so confusing. Well, that patchwork is paid off, you know, it may not have paid off evenly in every single state or every locality. But it’s led us to this 25 year low in terms of our emissions in the power sector. So, I think we can learn from that experience and try to make more consistent policies when we are able to. But you know, the way energy use is, it’s very local. And it’s local in terms of, you know the resources that might be available in certain jurisdiction as well as the policy environment. So, you know, I think council isn’t expecting kind of at all, a one size fits all approach. But if we can better align that, the policies at all levels of government and make them long term enough so that they respond to the investment cycles of the business community, then we are gonna have recipe for success. So, I’m thinking about things like our fuel economy standards, you know, the industry when it gets a signal from policymakers, starts to plan and invest.


Bill Loveless: And the signal right now, at least from the Trump administration is they want to pull back on the standard established by the Obama administration.


Lisa Jacobson: Right, yes. And there is uncertainty there. But in the years prior, there have been investments and plans being made to, you know, increase the fuel economy of fleets. So, that to me though is the type of policy which is provides flexibility to the private sector. It’s not prescriptive by technology. It doesn’t say, you need to use this amount of fuel vehicles. This amount of natural gas vehicles, this amount of electric vehicles. It lets the private sector incorporate those fuel economy gains across their fleet and it sets it out in a long enough time period that the industry and consumers can respond. And when you cause uncertainty or try to pull back those initiatives, we really in terms of the climate crisis, we are just wasting time. And, you know, we’re disrupting what had been a planning cycle that the market could absorb. So, I feel like, if we are gonna go forward both in the power sector or with these other industry sectors, we need to make sure that there is clarity on policy and that again, you know, looks out a decade or more. So that we can have, you know complimentary investment, plan to meet those policy objectives.


Bill Loveless: Right. You know and transportation, I’m reminded of something I read just this morning in Axios where _____ [00:15:18], the CEO of Swiss tech giant ADB said, he felt strongly that the car industry was at a Kodak moment recalling the swift movement from film to digital photography. I thought, it was interesting.


Lisa Jacobson: Yeah, that mean, I wouldn’t want, you know, there are a range of views within, you know the automobile industry. So I’m not trying to speak for them. I’m using it as an illustrative example. And again, I think the most important points of that are to have a policy that can fit with, you know the investment cycles of the private sector and that, I think importantly provides enough flexibility and it’s not prescriptive by technology on what the solution should be. And I think for buildings, for the industrial sector and for transportation, we have those opportunities in front of us.


Bill Loveless: Interesting. Well, you mentioned there is more in this report or perhaps a new section on transportation.


Lisa Jacobson: We are trying, you know, as we talked about transportation is at large portion of our emissions but I think more importantly we’re seeing across transportation, power, industrial sectors and buildings, you know, this interconnectedness and we are really looking at a system’s approach when we think about the markets going forward. So, how do buildings interact with the power grid and how do automobiles interact with the grid and then vice versa. So, it’s we’re moving towards a place where policies also need to recognize the interconnectedness of all these different sectors. And what the opportunities are because you know, if you can think about a building or vehicle, you know as an opportunity to manage electricity load, then you know, we have a lot more capability and it may be much more cost effective than other mechanisms to reduce emissions.


Bill Loveless: And the one data point I’m recalling from the fact book was the popularity of electric vehicles grew 3%. They amount to now 3% of total vehicle sold in the U.S. So that was of the fourth quarter, 2018 compared to 1.3% at the end of 2017. So, some progress but a long way to go.


Lisa Jacobson: Yeah, it’s really a strong uptake at the end of 2018 for electric vehicles.


Bill Loveless: I want to get back to, you mentioned before the connection between economic growth and energy consumption because the report makes the point, raises the question about whether the U.S. can continue along this low carbon pathway when economic growth of the United States is strong. So, strong and you know federal policy is relatively weak. Let me just point to one thing in the fact book. It said, U.S. energy consumption which had been relatively flat over the past ten years grew 3.3% in 2018 outpacing GDP growth of 2.9% resulting in energy productivity decline to 0.4%. This is different from what we have seen in previous years.


Lisa Jacobson: It is and I think you know, we have some ideas based on data of what could have contributed to that but at first, I would say, one year of data does not constitute a trend and if you look at the fact book, we go back to 1990 and the energy productivity improvements in our economy are extremely clear and strong. However, we did experience a year with much more robust growth which is something we all want to see. And…


Bill Loveless: You’re talking about GDP overall.


Lisa Jacobson: Yes, I’m talking, you know 2.9% of GDP growth and we saw energy consumption increase. So, some of the things that we look to and you eluded to some at the beginning of the conversation where what was going on in the buildings in industrial sector and when we broke that out to understand some of the other trends going on in 2018, we noted that it was record years for home heating and home cooling.


Bill Loveless: So weather played a role.


Lisa Jacobson: We had some extreme weather in 2018. Not just extreme, I mean, record-breaking weather days. There is data in the fact book that shows the number of high heating and high cooling days. So days where it was extremely cold and we needed more home heating than we had in previous years. And then days where it was really hot and we needed a lot of air-conditioning. So, you know, is that the answer? We don’t know. One year will not show us that. But it was an unusual year in terms of extreme weather. So, we think that contributed. And then we saw, you know, an uptake in industrial activity and we don’t know where this was a first year, basically our GDP growth almost doubled. And I don’t know if that is something that if we sustained that record level of growth we will sustain that level of emissions in the industrial sector. You know, we just don’t know yet. We are clearly gonna watch it. But you know, I think we’re hopeful that this will do two things. One, it will awaken the industrial sector for energy efficiency gains because again, you know, increased energy use is a cost and are there opportunities there to reduce those costs and make our industrial processes more efficient. And it may be an opportunity for policymakers to rethink, okay what is needed to work with this sector ideally in partnership with the private sector so that we can have more cost-effective energy efficiency policy. So, I think that was another message of this year fact book is you know, policy matters and we are at a pivotal moment even without these deviations in 2018, it’s just been a clarion call all of 2017 with the IPCC report. Intergovernmental panel on climate change report that talked about, you know, the urgent need to act in the next decade to address greenhouse gas emissions. We also had an assessment done here in the United States about the impacts of climate change on our economy that came out in late 2017. Also very strong call for action. So, even if we had not had these deviations in 2018, in terms of energy productivity or this uptake in emissions, we would have need to do a lot more and think about how policy plays a role.


Bill Loveless: Right, right. It’s an interesting conclusion. Well, Lisa, let’s get back to regulation again. You mentioned before and I found this interesting. You said the patchwork of regulation across the United States has worked, you know, to a considerable extent when it comes to the power sector. But still there seems to be concerns generally that the, let’s say the differences in policy, in Washington these days or perhaps the lack of policy attention when it comes to things like climate change over this interest among some parties on this topic here in the federal government is a serious problem in terms of attacking this whole question of clean energy development and decarburizing. I mean, to what extent is it?


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I think there is a lot of opportunity for the federal government to play a positive role, again provided it is, you know, setting out a direction for the private sector to respond to and it’s making policies that are truly looking at the activity in the private sector and trying to leverage it in terms of things like corporate procurement for example. You know, we’ve seen such strong results from the business community in terms of engaging in their energy choices and that’s led to, you know, significant amounts, record-breaking amounts of corporate PPA signed for renewable energy. But taking a step back, you know the federal government can play a role in a couple of ways. It could help design policies that integrate the costs of emissions into our economy. So there have been proposals considered related to carbon taxes to market based programs like cap and trade policies and you know, we are looking at them all because they all could play an important role.


Bill Loveless: You take a position on things like that cap and trade, carbon tax.


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I mean, we get to discreet policy proposals. We provide our views and if appropriate, you know, we would endorse them. But at this point, we are just trying to help policy makers understand how our industries would fit into those policies and what the overall outcomes would be.


Bill Loveless: Take a position on specifically.


Lisa Jacobson: No. You know, we have a climate change statement and we talk about all of these as potentially very effective. You know, but the design does matter. There is other things that Congress can do and the administration can do related to what I could call complementary policies. And those could be research and development initiatives. They could be tax policy. They could be standard setting. You know, they could be things included in infrastructure bill. So, you know, there is a lot of ways to encourage low and zero carbon investment to our economy. Again some of it could be discreet, climate change initiatives and others could be, you know, more traditional energy research development or tax policies.


Bill Loveless: Right and you make that point or the fact book makes that point in terms of other policy options including for some types of energy that you conclude you not necessarily received all that much attention in federal policy, tax policy, energy policy generally these days.


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I think you know, there is a lot of opportunity to kind of reset the conversation on technology. You know, there is, you know, renewable energy technologies that don’t receive the same treatment as wind and solar, let’s say and oh like hydropower, biomass, geothermal, waste to energy. You know, they have not benefited from the same tax treatment under the investment tax credit or the production tax credit as solar and wind have and that’s impacted their deployment. They also have other challenges with those policy structures. You know, they tend to be put in place for one or two years. I mean, up until the long term extension for wind and solar under those tax credits in 2015, they were pretty much one year, two year, extensions and for something like hydropower or biomass facility, you know, it takes many years to go through their project cycle. So they just couldn’t participate. Even though they were eligible, even when the tax credits were available to them because their project cycle is longer than when they credits were in place. So, that’s why I’m saying, you really have to look at the specific business cycle that you are trying to influence when we are setting policy. Because that’s a really good example of missed opportunity. I mean, there are a number of energy efficiency credits right now that are not on the books. There are credits related to sustainable transportation. So, I think one way to look forward on this is to think about the outcomes, you seek and then having policies that allow all technologies to compete. And that’s again where the federal government could play a really important role kind of set the long term pathway and send that signal to the marketplace to respond.


Bill Loveless: Well, that raises the question of climate in another sense and that’s the political climate. You testified recently before the Senate energy and natural resources committee and what was the panel’s first direct look at climate change in some time, in a few years. You know, the panel’s traditionally had a reputation for being bipartisan and today we see a Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is still there as the chairwoman and now Joe Manchin democrat West Virginia is the ranking member of the panel. You know, is that, you know, how would you come away from that hearing? How did you feel about…


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I felt it was really important that both chairman Murkowski and ranking member Manchin wanted to emphasize the importance of climate change and to talk about the science, underpinning the need for action. They both said that a number of times throughout the hearing and I think they wanted to have a refreshed conversation on the topic and where their committee could play a role and as you know, their committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over emissions policy per se. But as we were just discussing, I mean, energy policy can be a really important driver of emissions reduction and they do have primary jurisdiction over research development and deployment initiatives. So, in that hearing they really started from the base of bipartisan support for research development and deployment and kind of what are the next set of innovative technologies that we can partner with existing technology to you know, better tool ourselves to reduce emissions.


Bill Loveless: You think, that was a step in the right direction by this committee and a chamber of the Senate that otherwise hasn’t shown much interest in the topic of climate change.


Lisa Jacobson: I do. I think, you know, I think it’s extremely important that there are bipartisan efforts to in real time to think about where our markets and our emissions are today and what we can do constructively to, you know, make sure that we are reducing emissions and that federal policy is supportive as it can be.


Bill Loveless: Yeah. Because I mean, a lot of people talk about the divide, the bipartisan divide on this issue between republican and democrats but I mean, do you hear much from Republican members perhaps quietly of interest in these very topics that you study here at the council.


Lisa Jacobson: I think this Congress, you know, which started in January, there have been more conversations and more, I would say republicans coming forward talking about, you know, their views on the science or the need to act. And you know, there have been a number of Op-Eds by very prominent Republicans who have jurisdiction on these topics, talking about research development and deployment, wanting to get in the conversation again and I think that’s really positive.


Bill Loveless: Under that note, I mean, senators Murkowski and Manchin just had…


Lisa Jacobson: Yes, they also had an Op-Ed last week reflecting on the committee’s hearing that I participated in and again a very big focus on research development and deployment.


Bill Loveless: Yeah. Well, we can’t, you can’t leave these sorts of conversations these days without asking people what they think of the green new deal.


Lisa Jacobson: Well, I think the green new deal contributed to the fact that there was this hearing.


Bill Loveless: Really?


Lisa Jacobson: I do. Because it really changed the way people are thinking about not just climate change but how to address climate change. It was just so dramatic that it really shook up discussion here in Washington and I think by having something in essence so dramatic and aggressive that, you know, there is a lot of room underneath that for people to come together that they might not have seen before.


Bill Loveless: They say, it brings attention to the whole topic.


Lisa Jacobson: It brought attention but it also raised a lot of questions. You know, first of all it was very bold and it tried to encapsulate many things that you know, aren’t necessarily related to emissions or to energy per se like healthcare or employment. So, it just, as I said, I think the best words are really just shook up the conversations here in Washington and by doing that, you know, you find, well, maybe you don’t aspire to all those ideas in the green new deal resolution but the principles that underpin it, you can relate to and maybe there are some things that we can do that would respond. Maybe, you know, not in the same way as the green new deal might envision it. But those things that we can do. So, okay green new deal, big emphasis on and organizing structure is addressing climate change in a lot of different ways and okay, maybe not all of those ideas or things that have bipartisan support right now. But it certainly awoken policymakers to say, well, I do have something to offer to this conversation and because of the urgency that it created now people are you know, coming publicly and talking about it. So, I don’t think we should take for granted that having sustained and well targeted research and development and deployment programs is always gonna be in place. So, you know, having that kind of foundation, a bipartisan foundation for that over the long period is going to be very beneficial to us.


Bill Loveless: Right, right.


Lisa Jacobson: And to other economies not just the United States.


Bill Loveless: Right. Well it seems that this fact book may then provides a good opportunity for people to dig into some of the details and get better educated in terms of what might be done in terms of federal policy as well as business decisions across the United States. It’s been a great conversation, Lisa Jacobson. Thanks for joining us here on the Columbia Energy Exchange.


Lisa Jacobson: Thank you so much. Really appreciate the opportunity.


Bill Loveless: Well, that’s our conversation. I hope it was a good one for you. For more on the Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, go to our webpage at or visit us on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy. Leave us a comment and give us a rating too on your favorite podcast platform. For the Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll be back again next week with another conversation.