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US now ‘halfway to zero’ on electricity-sector carbon emissions

An LBNL report highlights the technology and economic changes that broke through pessimistic forecasts — and the challenges of cutting the rest of the power sector’s carbon footprint.

Jeff St. John
Jeff St. John
4 min read
US now ‘halfway to zero’ on electricity-sector carbon emissions

Back in 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that electricity-sector carbon emissions would rise gradually to 3,000 million metric tons (MMT) by 2020. Instead, they fell to 1,450 MMT as of last year, about 40 percent lower than 2005 levels and about half what EIA thought they would be by now.

Besides the fact that the EIA has consistently underestimated the rise of clean energy over the past decades, what does this tell us? Well, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, it’s a sign that U.S. utilities are already “halfway to zero” in terms of reducing electricity-sector carbon emissions compared to what everyone expected back then — a notable milestone as the Biden administration pushes its goal of cutting the power grid’s carbon footprint to zero by 2035.

“We’ve been able to bend the carbon curve, and done so fairly rapidly in the power sector at least,” said Ryan Wiser, report lead author, LBNL senior scientist and leader of the lab's Electricity Markets and Policy Department. “And we’ve done it without a comprehensive policy push.”

Instead, a number of other factors drove the drop, including falling prices for solar and wind, a shift from coal to natural gas as the generating fuel of choice, energy-efficiency gains, and declining energy demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

Of course, getting the rest of the way to zero will be an entirely different challenge. Just keeping U.S. emissions from rising as the economy rebounds from the pandemic will be an early test. Pre-Covid, 2019 emissions were only one-third below 2005 levels, highlighting the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas intensity.

In the longer run, multiple studies — recent contributions from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and from Princeton University among them — have detailed the trillions of dollars of investment and the massive policy and regulatory overhauls needed to get the rest of the way. Those include much greater wind and solar growth than ever before, along with massive new transmission capacity to carry that power where it’s needed.

Of the estimated 1,100 gigawatts of new wind and solar needed to reach 90 percent clean power by 2035 — a target that last year’s study from UC Berkeley and GridLab said can be achieved at an aggregate cost lower than today’s electricity cost — about 660 gigawatts are already in the development pipeline, Wiser pointed out.

While much of this pipeline is speculative in nature, “that certainly demonstrates there’s a commercial interest in building a vast amount of wind and solar,” he said. But much of this pipeline is stalled due to lack of transmission or costly grid upgrades required to interconnect it, whether in sun- and wind-rich Great Plains and Southwest climes, or on the offshore wind tracts along the East Coast.

The U.S. zero-carbon path will also require retaining existing nuclear power plants that are economically struggling and finding cost-effective long-duration energy storage. And the natural-gas power plants that now serve as the country’s single largest source of electricity will need to be replaced with carbon-free alternatives, switched to carbon-neutral fuels like hydrogen or biogas, or begin to capture and store their carbon emissions.

“Aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency and demand response — in part through  grid-interactive efficient buildings — can address some of these challenges,” Wiser noted. But new power grid operations and economic structures will be needed to encourage homes, businesses, factories and farms to adjust loads to variations in weather-dependent resources like wind and solar.

But if the challenges of getting to zero carbon are daunting, the benefits are enormous — and not just in terms of combatting the worst impacts of global warming, although those are significant. The report estimated climate damages from power-sector carbon emissions at $110 billion, less than half the $229 billion that would have occurred had EIA’s forecasts turned out to be true, based on analysis using federal social cost of carbon measures.

Health-related costs also fell more than 90 percent, from $419 billion to $34 billion, owing to reduced coal generation and stronger emissions regulations, according to the report’s modeling of health impacts from air pollution. And the job-intensive nature of building wind and solar farms drove 2019 energy-sector employment 29 percent higher than it would have been under the EIA’s 2005 forecast, according to the report’s analysis.

As for the early point about EIA’s consistent lowball projections of clean energy growth, Wiser cautioned against heaping too much blame on the agency for missing the story of the last 15 years. Five other 2oo5-era forecasts studied by LBNL researchers also projected about the same “business-as-usual” trajectory for carbon emissions, he noted.

“Solar has come down the cost curve faster than just about anyone projected, [and] LED lighting has taken off,” he said. It would have been hard to predict in 2005 that natural-gas prices would fall as low as they have, that federal tax incentives would have persisted and that states would have set the aggressive clean energy goals they have.

“The story, in my view, is about bending the curve away from business as usual,” he said. “That’s not to trivialize the challenges ahead. There are plenty of them. But in some ways, we’ve shown we can transition the power sector and its emissions on a relatively rapid timeframe.”

(Article image courtesy of American Public Power Association on Unsplash)

carbon emissionssolar powerwind powernuclear powerenergy storagenatural gasutilitiesnet-zero carbon

Jeff St. John

Jeff St. John covers technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He is former managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.