National Academies: Zero-carbon goal on ‘edge of feasibility’

Source: By Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A comprehensive road map for achieving a carbon-free economy by midcentury, issued yesterday by the National Academies, calls on the United States to invest $2 trillion over the next decade to jump-start monumental transitions in energy, innovation and manufacturing.

If done wisely, the transformation could leave Americans paying roughly the same share of income for energy services as they do today, thanks to declining costs for zero-carbon sources, the report says.

The decarbonization challenge is “technologically feasible,” the National Academies report concludes, adding, “But it is on the edge of feasibility.” The report calls on Congress to triple the Energy Department’s budget for low- and zero-carbon research over the next 10 years.

“The committee was specifically not tasked to determine whether the nation should pursue deep decarbonization, but rather to evaluate options for decarbonization and the highest-priority actions to pursue, given that goal,” it says.

The report notes that it is “broadly compatible” with President Biden’s goals of a net-zero-carbon economy by 2050, which Biden seeks as a U.S. commitment to avoid the worst future climate change impacts. The authors endorse a national clean energy standard — the policy anchor of Biden’s climate agenda.

The scholars and policy advocates authoring the report recommend that climate policy be broadened to explicitly benefit communities exposed to energy’s environmental damage, workers hit with job losses and lower-income families otherwise left behind in a clean energy conversion.

“A transition to a net-zero energy system is … an opportunity to build an energy system without the injustices that permeate our current system, and for those that are marginalized today to share equally in any future benefits,” the authors say.

Stephen Pacala of Princeton University, chair of the National Academies committee behind the report, said that a net-zero transition, “if done right,” could provide jobs and economic benefits that exceed its costs.

“A transition might also provide an opportunity to eliminate injustices that permeate our current energy system, such as the disproportionate exposure of historically marginalized groups to toxic fossil pollutants,” he says in a foreword to the report, “Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System.”

“I really want to emphasize societal factors,” Pacala said in a briefing yesterday, citing health benefits from decarbonization efforts. “You should want to do this even if you didn’t care about climate,” he said.

A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Pacala was one of the authors of Princeton’s separate “Net-Zero America” report on decarbonization strategies issued in December. Key findings in that report are foundations for the National Academies project.

The political feasibility of the report may not match its technological prospects.

A key building block would be a tax on carbon emissions starting at $40 per metric ton, increasing by 5% annually, to incentivize investments in carbon-free energy and accelerate coal- and gas-fired power plant retirements. The cost of the carbon tax would be about $2 trillion by 2030, the authors say. Resulting higher energy prices would be rebated to protect lower-income consumers, the report proposes. Carbon pricing is not on the agendas of Biden and the congressional leadership, though corporate America has warmed to the policy in recent years (Climatewire, Feb. 2).

Direct federal budget support would total $350 billion over 10 years under the National Academies’ plan to prime clean energy investments. The strategy requires a change in mindset to promote the most efficient long-term energy investments, not necessarily the cheapest options today, the report says. It recommends a federally funded “Green Bank” to lead clean energy investment.

According to the report, actions required in this decade to make a net-zero energy system reachable by 2050 include:

  • By 2030, half of all vehicle sales would have to be zero-emission vehicles, powered either by battery-electric or fuel cells.
  • Carbon-free electricity generation from renewable, nuclear and hydro energy would have to be doubled from 37% today to 75% by 2030, including deployment of 600,000 megawatts of wind and solar power capacity.
  • Existing nuclear plants would have to be preserved where possible, and “emitting gas-fired generation would decline 10 to 30 percent by 2030 and total capacity would be roughly flat,” the report projects.
  • A significant increase in transmission line capacity would be needed to move renewable power to urban centers, requiring strategies to resolve potential conflicts between the need to speed up siting of energy facilities and planning reforms that give affected communities a greater say in how and where new energy installations are built.

The National Academies committee made U.S. competitiveness a prime justification for clean energy policy, noting that the United States has lost much of its original leadership in these technologies.

“Only one of the top-10 solar photovoltaic manufacturers, First Solar, is an American firm (eight are Chinese, one is South Korean), and U.S. companies’ share of the global solar market has dropped below 10 percent,” the report notes.

Of the five leading lithium-ion battery producers, only one — Tesla Inc. — is American, according to the report.

“In 2005, Denmark had the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturing capacity, closely followed by Germany and the United States,” it says. “Yet, in only 15 years, China surged to become the largest manufacturer of wind turbines globally, with six times the U.S. manufacturing capacity.”

The United States “should attempt to claw these industrial sectors and markets back, so that it leads the world both in innovation and in the manufacturing and commercialization of advanced clean energy technologies,” the National Academies report concludes.

A manufacturing recovery around clean energy must be a vital source of new employment, the authors say.

“Because energy use affects so many aspects of people’s lives, a three-decade transition to net zero simply cannot be achieved without the development and maintenance of a strong social contract,” the report says. “The United States will need specific policies to cultivate public support for the transition, ensure an equitable and just net-zero energy system, and facilitate the recovery of people and communities hurt by the transition.”

“This is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor,” committee member Julia Haggerty, an associate professor of geography in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University, said at yesterday’s briefing.