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Illustrated portrait of Jesse Jenkins. Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Jesse Jenkins is figuring out how to electrify America’s power grid

Reaching net-zero emissions requires a historic overhaul of America’s infrastructure. Jenkins is mapping the way.

Oshan Jarow is a staff writer with Vox's Future Perfect, where he focuses on the frontiers of political economy and consciousness studies. He covers topics ranging from guaranteed income and shorter workweeks to meditation and psychedelics.

One thing Jesse Jenkins likes to tell his undergraduate students at Princeton: It took about 140 years to build America’s current power grid.

Now, we need to triple the grid’s output and shift electricity from 40 percent carbon-free to 100 percent in the next 30 years to stay on track with the US pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

As Jenkins points out, net-zero is just “the point where we stop digging a deeper hole.” Overhauling the power grid is necessary, but not sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends.

Jenkins is an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University, where he leads the ZERO Lab — short for “Zero-carbon Energy Systems Research and Optimization” — and is a faculty member of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. The ZERO Lab focuses on low-carbon energy modeling to help guide investment and research for new energy technologies, and is behind work like the REPEAT Project, a toolkit that provides ongoing evaluations of federal energy and climate policies, marking the progress (or lack thereof) toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Jenkins also co-authored the 2022 Net-Zero America Project report, one of the most ambitious and granular guides to how the US could decarbonize the entire economy.

The Net-Zero America Project lays out five different pathways — each using distinct but already known technologies, like solar and wind energy, or biomass supply that repurposes some agricultural land for energy crops — to rebuild and decarbonize the power grid. Each scenario turns the knobs a little differently, showing what would happen if we achieve rapid electrification but sluggish renewable energy growth, or slow electrification but a strong shift toward biomass supply.

However we approach it, the task ahead is gargantuan, but Jenkins is digging in. “Get ready for a US building spree not seen in generations,” he wrote in Mother Jones this spring.

The good news is three key bills — the bipartisan infrastructure law, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — have allocated more than half a trillion dollars over the next decade to get it done. Jenkins and the rest of the ZERO Lab team were deeply involved in sculpting that legislation, he told the Wall Street Journal, and “helped Senate staff target their most bang-for-the-buck provisions.”

The work of Jenkins and his colleagues has also helped to dispel the attractive but misguided belief that we can simply spend our way out of global warming. One report detailed the central role that electricity transmission will play in making the most of the Inflation Reduction Act’s potential climate benefits. Without overhauling the grid, the report finds that the US would see only about 20 percent of the potential emissions reductions.

And getting the most out of those climate benefits is a big deal: “Every tenth of a degree of warming matters in terms of the impacts and damages and suffering that can be avoided in the future,” Jenkins told the New York Times’s Ezra Klein.

To that end, Jenkins and the rest of his team at Princeton’s Andlinger Center are adapting their work globally, helping to incubate and support initiatives like Net-Zero Australia. They’re also building Rapid Switch, an international research effort to outline ambitious but realistic pathways toward decarbonizing the world.

“We now have the potential to rebuild a better America,” Jenkins writes. “It is time to roll up our sleeves and build that future.”

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