New Berkeley Lab research assesses progress towards a carbon-free energy sector.
Concerns about climate change are driving a growing number of states, utilities and companies to commit to reducing carbon emissions from the energy sector.
To date, 17 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have passed laws or executive orders to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity in the coming decades. In addition, 46 US utilities have pledged to go carbon-free by 2050.
In total, these targets cover about half of the US population and economy. These are ambitious goals, but a new look at the past 15 years in the electricity sector shows that major emission reductions are possible.
New research from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) analyzes historical trends to examine how much progress the energy industry has already made in reducing emissions.
The study, “Halfway to Zero: Progress into a Carbon-Free Power Sector,” looks back to the 2005 Annual Energy Outlook of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US government’s official agency for data collection and analysis.
“Business-as-usual forecasts saw annual carbon dioxide emissions of 2,400 to 3,000 million tons (MMT) from 2005 to 2020,” said Berkeley Lab scientist Ryan Wiser, lead author of the study. “But actual emissions in 2020 have dropped to just 1,450 MMT.
The US has cut emissions from the energy sector by 52% below expected levels – we are now “halfway to zero”.
According to the study, consumers’ total electricity costs were 18% lower than expected values; costs to human health and climate were 92% and 52% lower, respectively; and the number of jobs in electricity generation was 29% higher.
Drivers of change
From technological advancements to policy, the study identified the top drivers of the past 15 years that have contributed to lower carbon emissions in the US energy sector.
The total demand for electricity in 2020 was almost the same as in 2005 and was 24% lower than estimated fifteen years earlier.
“This drop in demand was due in part to sectoral and economic changes, but also to greater energy efficiency driven by policy and technological advancements,” said Wiser.
The researchers found that wind and solar power performed dramatically better than expected, delivering 13 times more power in 2020 than expected.
This is also the result of technology development and state and federal policies as prices for new wind and solar technologies plummeted.
In addition, nuclear generation has remained broadly stable, following past projections and helping to avoid a decline in carbon emissions.
The study found that switching from coal to natural gas for power generation played a big role in lowering carbon emissions. Natural gas production grew rapidly, driven by the shale gas revolution and low fuel prices.
The researchers also found that changes over the past 15 years had numerous other economic and environmental benefits.
For example, total consumer electricity bills in 2020 were 18% lower than previously forecast by EIA, yielding total savings of $ 86 billion per year.
According to the study, reduced sulfur and nitrogen emissions led to lower health effects, such as respiratory disease, with premature deaths dropping from 38,000 to 3,100 per year.
“Compared to the business-as-usual projection, the country not only significantly reduced its carbon footprint, but it did so while reducing overall energy bills and health costs,” said study co-author and Berkeley Lab scientist Dev Millstein.
The study also found that while employment patterns shifted along with changes in the energy sector, the electricity supply supports 200,000 more jobs than it would have been according to the earlier forecast.
While a retrospective shows that dramatic changes in emissions are possible over a 15-year period, the study points out that this does not guarantee that the next 15 years will see similar progress.
Given the advancements in wind, solar and battery technologies, these sources are likely to play an important role in the near-term further decarbonization of the energy sector.
Much of the capacity needed to approach a low-carbon energy sector target is already in the development pipeline, according to the study:
about 660 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar have applied for transmission access, more than half of what could be necessary to approach a low-carbon energy sector target. Not all proposed projects will be built, but the scale indicates interest in development.
Wiser points out that there are significant infrastructure requirements related to scaling up renewable energy. The energy sector will have to ensure electricity supply, reliability and resilience; build new transmission infrastructure;
change planning and networking activities; review placement processes; and draw attention to affected workers and communities.
Another big challenge is how to meet the last part of the demand, to ensure a reliable power supply when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.
The study concludes that further research, development and demonstration is needed for the numerous technologies that can fill this gap, such as long-term energy storage, hydrogen or synthetic fuels, bioenergy, fossil or biomass generation with carbon capture, nuclear energy, geothermal energy. energy.
energy and solar thermal energy with storage. “As the country sets out a plan for further decarbonization, the experience of the past 15 years offers two central lessons,” said Wiser. First, policy and technological progress are necessary to achieve significant emission reductions.
Second, our ability to predict the future is limited, so it will be critical to adapt as we gain policy experience and as technologies advance in unexpected ways. Reference: “Halfway to Zero: Progress Towards a Zero-Carbon Energy Sector” by Ryan H Wiser, Dev Millstein, Joseph Rand, Paul Donohoo-Vallett, Patrick Gilman and Trieu Mai, April 2021.