Shifting from carbon-emitting energy sources to renewable ones will be an essential part of addressing climate change, but the path to a renewable power grid is uncharted. A few states have already set specific renewable energy goals; last March, New Mexico passed legislation mandating that, by 2045, the state’s public electric utilities will be 100 percent carbon-free. This February 26-28, an SFI working group explores how New Mexico might best approach the transition to renewable energy sources, and what lessons could be useful for other regions.

The working group includes SFI faculty and other researchers, as well as experts who work in advocacy, government, and New Mexico’s public utilities.

“SFI has held lots of workshops on the theory of power grids, but to really work toward decarbonization, we need to dive into the details —hence the mix of local and global expertise,” says SFI Professor Cris Moore, who is organizing the workshop with External Professors Jessika Trancik (MIT), Seth Blumsack (Penn State), and Paul Hines (University of Vermont). Moore expects the meeting will result in “strategies specific enough to New Mexico to be useful, but at the same time provide insights that we can export to the rest of the world.”

Planning for a low-carbon energy future is inherently uncertain. We don’t know how demand, prices, or regulations will shift, and renewable energy sources themselves are variable over different timescales. Planning for daily fluctuations in wind speed or sunlight will require different technological and financial strategies than for rare, severe events that might, say, envelop an entire region in cloud cover for a week.

A primary question in planning a net-zero energy system is how to avoid highly suboptimal lock-in, says Trancik. “Once infrastructure and technology develop, it can be hard to put on the brakes. If we move toward a renewables-heavy system, for example, we’ll need ways to address extended shortages even if they pop up only, say, a few times every twenty years,” she says. It’s important to plan now for future challenges, and that includes keeping available several paths to deep decarbonization that also ensure reliable energy supply.

While many people are already thinking about specific technologies and solutions to production, storage, and transmission, Blumsack says this working group will be more focused on the transition process, using New Mexico as a test case. “We want to think through the transition process for New Mexico — where the state is going to have to make critical decisions and what those critical points might be — and then offer those lessons to apply in other states.”

Read more about the project, The Energy Transition in New Mexico, and the resulting report presented to the NM legislature.