According to a recent report, it is not only remarkably possible but also affordable to get to net zero emissions in the United States. Researchers showed that there will be a net cost of around $1 per person per day to convert the country’s electricity system to operate solely on renewables.
According to the World Bank, per capita carbon emissions in the U.S. are some of the largest in the world, with the nation emitting 17.6 tons of carbon per person in 2016. In its overall contributions to climate change, the country is second only to China, which means the climate steps it takes will make a significant difference to the world as a whole.
Researchers from the Berkeley Laboratory, the University of San Francisco and Evolved Energy Science, a consultancy company, looked at ways in which by 2050 the US could become carbon free. The emphasis was on reducing energy and industrial (E&I) emissions, which account for over 80% of the country’s emissions.
“By methodically increasing energy efficiency, switching to electric technologies, utilizing clean electricity (especially wind and solar power), and deploying a small amount of carbon capture technology, the United States can reach zero emissions,” the authors write in the paper. “Cost is about $1 per person per day, not counting climate benefits.”
Berkeley Lab senior scientist Margaret Torn, one of the study’s lead authors, said that decarbonization of the American energy system would require a major infrastructure overhaul. The country would have to build new wind and solar plants and transmission lines, deploy a fleet of electric cars and light trucks and replace conventional furnaces and water heaters with heat pumps, he argued. But it can be done.
All pathways used four basic strategies: energy efficiency, decarbonized electricity, electrification, and carbon capture. Net costs of a carbon neutral economy ranged between 0.2% to 1.2% of the GDP. Least‐cost pathways were based on more than 80% wind and solar electricity plus thermal generation for reliability. A 100% renewable primary energy system was feasible but more expensive.
“We were pleasantly surprised that the cost of the transformation is lower now than in similar studies we did five years ago, even though this achieves much more ambitious carbon reduction,” Torn said in a statement. “The main reason is that the cost of wind and solar power and batteries for electric vehicles has declined faster than expected.”
The study showed that prices would likely be smaller if the economic and environmental effects of decarbonizing the economy were considered. Leaving behind fossil fuels will entail less energy spending and less climate change effects, such as prolonged droughts, fossil-fuel air and water emissions, and better environmental health.
Using new energy models that provided descriptions of energy use and output for 16 geographic regions in the US, the researchers built pathways. The costs were then estimated using, among other factors, forecasts for fossil fuel and renewable energy rates from the US Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Forecast. This stems primarily from the development of modern infrastructure.
The study showed that the measures that have to be taken in the next 10 years are actually very close, independent of the long-term variations between and pathway. The US must boost renewable energy production and transmission, ensure that any new infrastructure, such as vehicles or houses, is low-carbon, and preserve its existing reliability capability for gas.
“We don’t need to have a big battle now over questions like the near-term construction of nuclear power plants, because new nuclear is not required in the next ten years to be on a net-zero emissions path. Instead, we should make policy to drive the steps that we know are required now.” study lead author Jim Williams said in a statement
Previous studies have made similar arguments over the transition of the US economy to decarbonization. But the researchers believe this is the first one to give a detailed description of how the US energy and industrial system can be a source of negative emissions by 2050 – meaning more CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere than added.