DOE study: Net-zero emissions feasible at low cost

Source: By Miranda Willson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The U.S. could achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 while spending less on energy relative to gross domestic product than it has for the past 50 years, according to a new study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the San Francisco-based firm Evolved Energy Research.

Published in the AGU Advances journal last month, the study puts a spotlight on President Biden’s aim to fully decarbonize the U.S. economy by midcentury, in line with the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

Achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 would cost between 0.2% and 1.2% of the country’s total economic activity, compared to the historical range of U.S. energy costs from 5.5% to 13% of GDP from 1970 to the present, the study said. While the study does not discuss how the transition should be paid for, most of the costs would support the building of new infrastructure, including solar farms, transmission lines and electric vehicles.

“Cost is not the real barrier here,” said Ryan Jones, co-founder of Evolved Energy Research and a co-author on the study. “It’s really about the political economy and the know-how to organize this transition, which will be very challenging in a lot of ways but less challenging economically than people have envisioned in the past.”

A growing number of companies and world leaders have said they support the goal of achieving net-zero emissions. But how to get there exactly — and how much it will cost — isn’t fully agreed upon. Many of the technologies and new infrastructure needed to reach the target, for instance, likely would require federal government spending that might run into political barriers.

The study outlines eight “deep decarbonization” scenarios for the country, all of which would lead to net-zero or “net-negative” emissions by 2050 at a lower price than historic energy costs.

In the least-cost scenario, renewable energy would power 90% of electricity by 2050. In another scenario, more fossil fuels would be retained with carbon capture in place, while a third would involve a complete phaseout of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The cost estimates for each of the policy pathways do not account for the economic and social impacts of climate change under a business-as-usual scenario.

“We’re not including the benefits of avoiding climate change or air pollution or all of that, and if you look at some of the conservative studies out there, that completely swings from net cost to net benefit when you think about damages from weather and so forth,” said co-author Jim Williams, an associate professor of energy systems management at the University of San Francisco and a Berkeley Lab affiliate scientist.

Two scenarios would go beyond net-zero CO2 to achieve net-negative emissions by 2050 using tools such as carbon capture and modifications to agriculture and forest management practices, according to the paper. Reaching net-negative emissions — whereby CO2 is being removed from, rather than added to, the atmosphere — could help the world avoid some of the most disruptive impacts of climate change, according to some climate scientists.

Although other reports have explored ways to reach net-negative emissions in the U.S., this is the first peer-reviewed study that offers a detailed road map for getting there, the researchers said.

“This is the first study to show not only that achieving net negative emissions by 2050 is feasible, but to show how we can do it, step by step, for the whole energy and industrial system of the U.S.,” Margaret Torn, co-author of the paper and senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, said in an email.

The 2020s plan

In the short term, four strategies must be included as part of any emissions-reduction effort, the paper said: increased energy efficiency in buildings and appliances; rapid deployment of carbon-free electricity; electrification of buildings, transportation and other sectors; and carbon capture technologies.

Decisions made over the next decade involving those issues are among the most critical for getting on the path to net-zero or net-negative emissions, according to the researchers.

“The actions that really need to happen in the 2020s are electricity decarbonization and starting electrification in a big way,” Jones said.

Between now and 2030, solar and wind capacity should increase by 3 ½ times, electricity generation from coal must be almost entirely eliminated, and research and development for carbon capture and sequestration must continue to progress, among other crucial steps.

Existing natural gas capacity, meanwhile, should stay online in the near term to provide backup power for reliability, the study said. On the other hand, steps should be taken to incentivize consumer uptake of electric heat pumps in buildings, which would reduce gas use for residential and commercial heating.

Although appropriate policies will vary from region to region, the report concludes that some of the most controversial and high-cost options — such as building new nuclear power plants or installing carbon capture infrastructure at coal and gas plants — will not be needed this decade.

“We have time to keep developing technologies and understanding the various trade-offs,” Jones said.

The study shows that a transition toward carbon-free energy would require targeted but affordable investments — not “a World War Two style mobilization” of the economy, said Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, who was not involved in the research.

“We only need to spend a similar or even lower share of GDP on energy as we do today, just spend and invest on cleaner choices,” Jenkins said in an email.