Our Heroes: John Rogers of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Union of Concerned Scientists

With interest in the energy-water-climate nexus intensifying, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has emerged as one of the preeminent organizations and resources on this important environmental and economic issue.  John Rogers, senior analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at UCS, is at the heart of their work on the nexus.

John manages the organization’s energy-water initiative, which is successfully building awareness of the inextricable relationship between our water and energy systems, particularly in the context of a changing climate. John and his colleagues at UCS seek to motivate and inform effective low-water (and low-carbon) energy solutions.

Outside of UCS, John and his family have taken steps to cut their own carbon footprint (and energy costs) and he has good advice for others trying to do the same.

In the interview below you’ll learn what drew John to the nexus issue, what he thinks is the biggest single energy challenge facing the US and whether we have a shot at avoiding the worst potential consequences of global warming.

Tell me about Union of Concerned Scientists and the work UCS is doing to increase awareness about the relationship between energy and water.

UCS puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems, including around climate and energy. Our Energy and Water in a Warming World initiative (EW3) has been a UCS-led collaboration aimed at broadening awareness of the many connections between energy and water, and particularly the water implications of our electricity choices – issues around water use and water quality from cooling power plants, extracting fuels like coal and natural gas, and managing power plant waste. Together with experts from universities, national laboratories and other research institutions, we’ve looked in depth at how power plants use water now and what different electricity pathways might mean for power sector water use in the future.  And at how that water use causes trouble.

The United States is at a critical juncture in determining its energy future. How do water and climate factor into the energy future?

Lots of ways. The power sector is a big driver of climate change, because of our heavy use of fossil fuels. Our electricity choices also affect how much pressure the power sector puts on lakes, rivers and aquifers (and vice versa). At the same time, climate change is having a strong impact on how much water is available when, and under what conditions. And, in some cases, how much power we’ll need – for extra air conditioning during heat waves, for example.

We can get into a vicious climate-energy cycle, where poor energy choices make global warming worse and position us badly for climate impacts on the power sector. Or we can get into a virtuous cycle, with smart energy choices that not only help us avoid the worst effects of climate change, but also prepare us better for the impacts that do come.

I vote for option 2.

Will we be seeing more renewable energy in the near future?

No question about it. In the US, we’re seeing incredible progress. We now generate enough power from wind and solar for over 18 million US households, and it’s growing incredibly quickly. And our progress is part of serious global movement: non-hydro renewables now account for almost 6 percent of electricity production worldwide, and China put up more renewables last year than fossil fuels or nuclear, for example.

And now we have the EPA’s proposed power plant carbon standards, a really important step forward for getting a grip on heat-trapping emissions from the power sector, a real potential climate game changer.

The good thing is that renewable energy makes sense from so many perspectives, far beyond its carbon and other environmental benefits – energy diversity, security, resilience, economics, price stability and more. And the technologies are evolving, with efficiencies going up, costs coming down and options expanding.

What do you think is the biggest single energy challenge facing the US today?

Political will. What we need to do is clear, and how we can do it is even clearer. What we need is a whole lot more leadership, of the type the EPA showed earlier this month with the new standards. In the near term, Congress needs to extend the production tax credit that has driven the development of so much wind and other renewables. The EPA needs to finalize strong power plant carbon standards. And then we need to go far beyond those measures, to accelerate the transition to clean electricity, and get much deeper cuts in carbon pollution across the board.

Is positive change happening fast enough? Can we undo the damage we’ve already done in regards to altering the climate and degrading our natural resources?

There are so many good things happening, including in the electric sector: great progress in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and cuts in the amount of electricity we get from coal. But we need to ramp it up. The science is clear: our choices today can help determine our climate. We can’t stop climate change, but getting on the right path – cutting emissions and switching to clean energy, for example – can help us to avoid the worst potential consequences of global warming.

When did you personally take an interest in the energy-water nexus?

I worked on water issues early in my career, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America, and then got into solar energy, working in the private, government and non-profit sectors. It was only five years ago or so that I got to marry those two pieces of my background. UCS’s energy-water work has been incredibly enlightening, and has exposed me to whole new worlds of people trying really hard to make a difference, from an angle different from the one I’ve been using. 

What changes have you made in your own life to reduce your impact on the environment?

We’ve worked a lot on our home to cut our energy use, our two cars are an early hybrid and an electric car, and I gave up meat a few years ago. But it’s a process – a journey, not a destination – so we keep looking for more opportunities. And our most important effort may be raising our two boys to be environmental leaders of tomorrow.

Who inspires you?

I’m inspired by entrepreneurs in the clean energy space, people committing their all to help us get onto a much better energy path; that includes a mentor and friend who got me started in renewable energy more than two decades ago, and is just as committed now as he was 30 years ago. And I’m inspired by young leaders in our field, people who figure out early in their careers what kind of positive change they want to see, and are helping make it happen.