Which Way to Solve Climate?

December 21, 2020

Big new report from a Princeton University group released last week.
The report presents 5 alternative scenarios, none of them designated as the “right” way to go, but each with its own set of challenges. Some scenarios include technology like carbon capture and storage, as well as nuclear, and one scenario is “renewables only”, with no exotic technologies.
One important finding, none of the scenarios envisions spending more than 3 percent of GDP above the reference (no action) case – and all would be less than that, if prices for fossil fuels rise.

Princeton Environmental Research:

With a massive, nationwide effort the United States could reach net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 using existing technology and at costs aligned with historical spending on energy, according to a study led by Princeton University researchers.

The new “Net-Zero America” research outlines five distinct technological pathways for the United States to decarbonize its entire economy. The research is the first study to quantify and map with this degree of specificity, the infrastructure that needs to be built and the investment required to run the country without emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than are removed from it each year. It’s also the first to pinpoint how jobs and health will be affected in each state at a highly granular level, sometimes down to the county.

The study’s five scenarios describe at a highly detailed, state-by-state level the scale and pace of technology and capital mobilization needed across the country, and highlight the implications for land use, incumbent energy industries, employment, and health. Initial results were released December 15, in recognition of the urgency to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the need for immediate federal, state, and local policy making efforts. Journal publications will follow in early 2021.

John Holdren, former science advisor to President Obama and former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called the study remarkable and said it called attention to the areas where policy measures are most needed.

“Everybody seriously interested in the crucial question of this country’s energy-climate future—not least the new Biden-Harris administration—needs to understand the findings of this extraordinary study,” said Holdren, who is a professor in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Because all five scenarios take the country to net-zero emissions, the researchers are neutral as to which is the “best” or most likely to be implemented. All of the pathways were found to involve annual spending on energy within the historic range of what the country spends on energy each year, about 4-6% of gross domestic product, or GDP.

“Net-zero pathways require spending a similar fraction of GDP that we spend on energy today, but we have to immediately shift investments toward new clean infrastructure instead of existing systems,” said Jenkins.

According to the research, following a “business-as-usual” pathway without concerted decarbonization efforts, the country would spend about $9.4 trillion on energy over the next decade. In all five net-zero scenarios, energy system costs are estimated to be only about 3% (or $300 billion) more for the decade, and this percentage shrinks further if oil and gas prices are higher than modeled.

Graph shows costs of 5 alternative scenarios for net zero carbon by 2050, compared to a referent, (no action) case.

The scenarios that the new research details include a “high electrification” or E+ scenario, which involves aggressively electrifying buildings and transportation, so that 100% of cars are electric by 2050. The “less high electrification” or E- scenario, electrifies at a slower rate and uses more liquid and gaseous fuels for longer. Another scenario, noted as E- B+, allows much more biomass to be used in the energy system, which, unlike the other four scenarios, would require converting some land currently used for food agriculture to grow energy crops. The E+ RE+ pathway is an “all-renewables” scenario and also is the most technologically restrictive. It assumes no new nuclear plants would be built, disallows below-ground storage of carbon dioxide, and eliminates all fossil fuel use by 2050. It relies instead on massive and rapid deployment of wind and solar and greater production of hydrogen to meet carbon goals. The E+ RE- scenario, by comparison, relies on “limited renewables,” constraining the annual construction of wind turbines and solar power plants to be no faster than the fastest rates achieved by the country in the past, but removes other restrictions. This scenario depends more heavily on the expansion of power plants with carbon capture and nuclear power.

According to the research, the United States will need to expand its electricity transmission systems by 60% by 2030, and may need to triple it by 2050. Electrifying buildings, primarily by adding heat pumps for water and space heating, and electrifying transportation is another step that must be accelerated in the 2020s to set the stage for any of the pathways.

“The current power grid took 150 years to build. Now, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge amount of change,” said Jenkins.

A critical issue for driving this clean-energy agenda is where new solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing facilities are built, and where the solar and wind farms themselves are sited, along with biofuel production plants. The research provides city and regional maps that show where it is least costly to build these facilities and where they integrate into the energy system most efficiently. But this does not account for the social and human aspects of where to construct new infrastructure.

“None of the Princeton scenarios will prove to be ‘right,’ but together they provide a compelling picture of possible paths forward,” said Holdren.

“The motivation is to provide granular guidance for decisionmakers as to what it would take to make those net-zero pledges a reality, with a focus on the actions we need to take today that will have lasting impacts long after the CEO is retired or the policymaker is out of office,” said Jenkins.

The study has drawn some criticism, in particular for the scenarios that rely on carbon capture and nuclear technologies that currently have not been demonstrated.
More on that in another post.

One Response to “Which Way to Solve Climate?”

  1. doldrom Says:

    The economics are only useful to policy makers that are ready to make decisions. The dark side is so completely ensconced in the idea that everything but coal & fracking is a costly government subsidy waste that rational discourse in terms of numbers is well nigh impossible. The first measure we could have taken to unleash the power of the market and human ingenuity for better solutions is a carbon dividend.
    We should also have been investing hundreds of Billions in research the past 35 years (it’s a national security interest like no other). I’m convinced we will yet see vast improvements in efficiency, battery technology, solar film efficiency, and I haven’t given up yet on ammonia-powered fuel cells or something similar.

    But the most important part of any plan is not the details but the incentives!
    Not personal convictions, but real world economic incentives.


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