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Transition to clean energy future will be ‘lumpy,’ says Lincoln Davies, but we can get there

The College of Law's 29th annual Stegner Center Symposium explored renewable energy sources.

When he talks about renewable energy, Lincoln Davies wants you to keep the number 173,000 in mind.

That’s the amount of solar energy, in terms of terawatts, bathing Earth at any given moment. It’s also 10,000 times what the planet’s human inhabitants use.

Turning the sun’s energy into electricity is key to the world’s energy transition away from the fossil fuels disrupting the climate. But the pathway to accomplishing that on the massive scale required will be neither straight, fast or predictable, according to the law professor and energy law expert.

Law professor Lincoln Davies, speaking on March 15, 2024, at the Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah. Photo credit: S.J. Quinney College of Law.

“A quarter of a century ago, the nation produced 88% of its electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear and 53% from coal alone,” said Davies, dean of The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and former University of Utah faculty member, while delivering the keynote to the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment 29th Annual Symposium at the University of Utah. “Renewables were stagnant. Little was being added to the system and almost all the production came from large hydroelectricity facilities. Today this image has been turned on its head.”

Davies also likes to talk about Texas, but more on that later.

This year’s symposium focused on renewable energy, with panels examining various aspects of the energy system, from electrical transmission to critical minerals to federal permitting.

Through the two-day symposium, held March 14 and 15, participants heard two seemingly contradictory messages.

On the one hand, renewable energy sources are now growing faster than anyone would have predicted only a few years ago. Coal-fired electricity has plunged to just 16% of generation, largely replaced by natural gas, which now accounts for 43%, according to Davies

“It’s happening fast. At the same time, renewables have soared,” he said. “They now make up 21% of the United States overall production, a staggering rise by any measure.”

Last year, 88% of all new generation installed was from clean sources and planned for this year, the figure is 96%.

On the other hand, substantial hurdles, such as a lack of electrical transmission capacity and permitting bottlenecks, obstruct the accelerating expansion needed to avert climate catastrophe. Davies noted, worryingly, that 40% of proposed generation projects are canceled due to transmission constraints.

A tale of two cities: Manhattan and Aachen

Davies emphasized hope, reflecting on a recent road trip through Utah’s Cathedral Valley with his two kids.

To explain his vision for how energy transitions unfold, Davies drew from two historical developments, highlighting Manhattan’s Pearl Street Station, where Thomas Edison built the first commercial electrical power plant in 1882, and the provincial German city of Aachen near the border with Belgium.

In the late 1980s, following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a retired soldier turned energy activist living in Aachen established a system that would later lead to the rapid expansion of renewable energy production.

To encourage residents to install solar panels on their homes, Wolf von Fabeck convinced his city to adopt a “feed-in tariff” that paid small-scale power producers above-market prices for electricity delivered into the grid.

The idea was to promote investment in renewable energy sources by sheltering producers from financial risk.

“This new Aachen model had an incredible effect, but not immediately,” Davies said. “Time, dissemination and multiple other developments had to come first before this seed could grow into an undeniable force that today continues to drive clean energy transition.”

So too, a century earlier, when Edison, history’s most prolific inventor, fired up his Pearl Street generating station to produce electricity for a few hundred customers. Many at the time dismissed the plant as a gimmick and indeed Pearl Street ran for only a dozen years before shutting down as a financial failure. This historic structure stands to this day as a parking facility.

However, the station established a model of centralized power generation that would transform the world. Yet, it would take decades before anyone realized the true significance of Edison’s loud, smoky generators.

“The Pearl Street and Aachen sagas underscore that energy transitions are inevitably multidimensional in cause, scope and effect,” Davies said. “Today’s electricity is a legacy of not just leaps in physics and inventions in engineering. It is also a byproduct of new ideas and business governance and regulation.”

The red state energy revolution

Davies cautioned against thinking of the transition to renewables in partisan, blue-versus-red terms, noting the nation’s four top wind-energy-producing states voted for the Republican nominee for president in 2020: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas.

”These four traditionally red states accounted for nearly half the nation’s wind energy production in 2023. A top the list by a massive margin, Texas,” he said. “In fact, in 2022, Texas’s nearly 19,000 wind turbines generated roughly 114 terawatt hours of electricity that accounted for more than 26% of all U.S. wind sourced to electricity.”

Wind supports 26,135 jobs with an average salary of $110,000, resulting in $1.7 billion in gross domestic product for the state.

This achievement was the result of deliberate economic policies initiated in the late 1990s, under the leadership of Gov. George W. Bush, despite Texas’s legacy as a top oil and gas producer.

It started with mandated targets for renewable installations, which the state eventually exceeded four-fold. Then came 3,000 miles of new transmission lines.

“In 2005, Texas adopted another law aimed at easing construction of large transmission lines to move power from West Texas and the state’s panhandle, where wind resources are greater, to the state’s cities, where people live and industry demands energy,” Davies said. “Another key in Texas was government didn’t let politics get in the way of good policy.”

Davies stressed the importance of resisting “energy ideology,” which would only divide the nation further.

“In today’s tribal America, where labels carry more weight than conversation and claimed identities all too often trump actually listening to one another, this will not be an easy task. But the reality is clean energy makes good sense,” he said. “Whether you voted red or blue, whether you turn into Fox News or NPR, it’s also good business. The cheapest power today is solar and wind with natural gas sometimes competing. The clean energy transition, moreover, is built on a foundation of bipartisanship, as Texas’s experience shows.”

This year’s symposium, titled “The Renewable Energy Transition: Building a Bright Future,” was hosted by the law school’s Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment. Video recordings of the symposium’s panels and keynotes can be found here.


  • Brian Maffly Science writer, University of Utah Communications
  • Henry Randolph Director, Marketing & Communications S. J. Quinney College of Law University of Utah
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