Carbon‐Neutral Pathways
February 6, 2021 12:06 AM   Subscribe

New study: A zero-emissions US is now pretty cheap (pdf) - "In 2050, benefits to the US offset costs, but there are some unexpected outcomes."
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C points to the need for carbon neutrality by mid‐century. Achieving this in the United States in only 30 years will be challenging, and practical pathways detailing the technologies, infrastructure, costs, and tradeoffs involved are needed. Modeling the entire U.S. energy and industrial system with new analysis tools that capture synergies not represented in sector‐specific or integrated assessment models, we created multiple pathways to net zero and net negative CO2 emissions by 2050. They met all forecast U.S. energy needs at a net cost of 0.2–1.2% of GDP in 2050, using only commercial or near‐commercial technologies, and requiring no early retirement of existing infrastructure. Pathways with constraints on consumer behavior, land use, biomass use, and technology choices (e.g., no nuclear) met the target but at higher cost. All pathways employed four basic strategies: energy efficiency, decarbonized electricity, electrification, and carbon capture. Least‐cost pathways were based on >80% wind and solar electricity plus thermal generation for reliability. A 100% renewable primary energy system was feasible but had higher cost and land use. We found multiple feasible options for supplying low‐carbon fuels for non‐electrifiable end uses in industry, freight, and aviation, which were not required in bulk until after 2035. In the next decade, the actions required in all pathways were similar: expand renewable capacity 3.5 fold, retire coal, maintain existing gas generating capacity, and increase electric vehicle and heat pump sales to >50% of market share. This study provides a playbook for carbon neutrality policy with concrete near‐term priorities.
also btw...
  • Debt Is No Reason to Fear Trillions in Green Spending - "The investment is modest compared with other major infrastructure projects in U.S. history, and these projects will give back more than they cost."
  • Solar power now cheapest way to add electricity in many markets - and getting cheaper - "Solar's advantage continues to grow - even without subsidies or environmental initiatives."
  • The cost of solar power has dropped 90% over the last two decades,[*] and will likely fall another 15% to 25% in the decade to come, says Wood Mackenzie. By 2030, solar will become the cheapest source of new power in every US state, plus Canada, China, and 14 other nations.

    Wood Mackenzie’s latest report Total eclipse: How falling costs will secure solar’s dominance in power calls the solar power industry “highly investible” due to its growing ability to meet both economic and policy goals...

    Solar is already the cheapest form of new electricity generation in 16 US states, plus Spain, Italy and India. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic raging, global installations exceeded 115 gigawatts (GW) in 2020, compared to 1.5 GW in 2006...

    Wood Mackenzie stresses that its outlook only factored in technological improvements that are already well into the commercial development pipeline. The projections do not assume any breakthroughs in next-generation solar technology or other innovations, which could provide further upside to the outlook.
  • A Monster Wind Turbine Is Upending an Industry (nyt) - "G.E.'s giant machine, which can light up a small town, is stoking a renewable-energy arms race."
  • A larger turbine produces more electricity and, thus, more revenue than a smaller machine. Size also helps reduce the costs of building and maintaining a wind farm because fewer turbines are required to produce a given amount of power.

    These qualities create a powerful incentive for developers to go for the largest machine available to aid their efforts to win the auctions for offshore power supply deals that many countries have adopted. These auctions vary in format, but developers compete to provide power over a number of years for the lowest price.
  • South Korea unveils $43 billion plan for world's largest offshore wind farm - "The project is a major component of President Moon Jae-in's Green New Deal, initiated last year to curb reliance on fossil fuels in Asia's fourth-largest economy and make it carbon neutral by 2050... The envisaged 8.2 GW amounts to the energy produced by six nuclear reactors, or the effects of planting 71 million pine trees, officials said. To date, the world's largest offshore wind farm is Hornsea 1 in Britain, which has 1.12 GW capacity."
  • Denmark to construct artificial island as a wind energy hub - "The construction project, believed to be the biggest in Danish history, will link hundreds of wind turbines to deliver enough electricity for millions of households... The decision came as the EU unveiled plans to transform the bloc's electricity supply. The bloc aims to rely mostly on renewable energy within a decade while increasing offshore wind energy capacity roughly 25-fold by mid-century."
  • Squamish Nation moves Vancouver forward with transformative Senakw project - "By the end of this year, site preparation for construction could begin on the Senakw development, squeezed into the area around the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver. Squamish First Nation members overwhelmingly voted to approve the massive development on their 12-acre Kitsilano reserve in late 2019. Thus allowing band leaders to seal the partnership with local developer Westbank and continue their work with refining the design concept." (viz. cf.)
posted by kliuless (16 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
This was a really comprehensive and positive post. Thanks for sharing.
posted by mundo at 12:23 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Starting my weekend by seeing a picture of a wind turbine that nearly matches the size of the empire state building is inspiring indeed. Thanks!
posted by Alex404 at 1:50 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

Here’s to a great big beautiful tomorrow!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:23 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this post, I look forward to exploring it during the weekend.
Just to add some local information: Denmarks decision to build the energy island follows right on the heels on a decision to end all new oil and gas exploration.
Apart from the obvious impact on global warming and general pollution, I think this also has an impact on politics in general. The oil and gas have fueled a generation of right-wing populist politics and politicians, and their time is coming to an end now, too. They are still noisy and obnoxious, but they are completely outside power.
posted by mumimor at 3:51 AM on February 6 [8 favorites]

Solar is indeed getting extremely cheap.

Thought I'd just chip in from Australia - South Australia (population 1.6 mil) for a brief period fulfilled 100% of its electricity demand with solar alone - a world first for a grid of this size. 80% of the demand was fulfilled with "distributed solar" meaning PV installations on residents homes, while 20% was filled with commercial solar farms. Australia has the highest installed solar PV per capita, most of it owned by residents directly - it's almost standard practice for people to buy a 6.6kW PV unit for their home to reduce their electricity bill and earn money exporting it to the grid. And it's pretty much standard that every house has thermal solar hot water (which is about twice as efficient per sqm of roof) because new building laws demand it, plus rebates from the government make it practically free for the consumer. Owning the means of production indeed....

Other interesting fact: the move towards renewables in SA was driven by a desire to lower electricity prices and reduce dependence on gas and coal, and since 2012 electricity prices have fallen 57%.

Even more interesting: SA is being run by the right wing party, who are very pro renewable energy at the state level, even though at the federal level they are officially on the side of coal and gas lobbyists and generally anti-environment.

SA is also the home to Tesla's $50 mil mega battery (129 MWh) which has saved $150 mil in its first few years of operation by buying excess power when wholesale prices are cheap, selling it when it is expensive, and also by providing grid stabilization services.

For example, on August 25, 2018, lightning strikes on the main link from NSW to Queensland set off a series of events that caused the failure of the electrical links between South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. At the time, SA and QLD were exporting power to VIC and NSW.

Immediately after the separation, VIC and NSW had too little input power into the grid and the grid had to shut down electricity to thousands of homes to protect itself. QLD on the other hand had too much input power in their grid and had to shut down parts of the grid to protect thousands of homes.

South Australia though? The Tesla battery was able to immediately provide critical support to the grid within 1-2 seconds - something that no power generator is able to do - stabilizing the frequency by providing support when the grid separated, then absorbing excess energy when the rest of the local grid overcompensated. No homes in South Australia lost power.
posted by xdvesper at 3:58 AM on February 6 [26 favorites]

Xdvesper, thank you for spreading the word! We need to hear these practical success stories. Vermont is seeing huge increases in this technology adoption not because the pure energy economics are quite there but because of the resilience and reliability impacts in our remote grids.

We used to see more solar hot water, but now most are going with solar oven paired with hot water heat pump because of the economics and issues with maintaining liquid loops and heat exchangers down to sub zero Fahrenheit temperature. Vermont is pretty high on the cold and cloudy list. If other externalities are making it practical here, it should be almost everywhere.
posted by meinvt at 4:38 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]

South Australia (population 1.6 mil) for a brief period fulfilled 100% of its electricity demand with solar alone - a world first for a grid of this size.

I'm interested in how 'size' is defined - or maybe 'grid'. Presumably this is geographic, not demographic, because I think Scotland does this quite regularly, what with all the wind, but maybe Scotland doesn't count as a 'grid'.

As a Victorian I'm quite jealous of the SA setup. I think there are plans afoot to have our own big battery.

We (ie Aus) have such a massive opportunity for this stuff, but the possibility of stranded coal-field assets is too much grief for the people who own Canberra. It has to be done at state level, and also how do you sink a whole Queensland?
posted by pompomtom at 4:47 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

(ak: I'm an idiot. It says 'solar' not 'renewable'... I suspect SA has rather an advantage over Scotland for solar...)
posted by pompomtom at 4:50 AM on February 6

Yep, pompomtom, the grid of the whole of GB is reported as one unit, and I think the Scotland-England (and indeed, Scotland-Wales) interlinks aren't reported on. Currently the GB grid as a whole is 42% renewable, + 14% nuclear.

That said, the maps linked above are only talking about grid electricity, so they paint Australia in a very bad light.
posted by ambrosen at 6:28 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

South Australia Is a Time Machine Into the Solar-Powered Future - "The glut of home-generated electricity there holds lessons for the future of distributed energy generation."
posted by kliuless at 6:41 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]

If the Federal govt weren't working as hard as they can to discourage the take-up of electric cars then I suspect this 'glut' would not be a thing. Unfortunately we have a "Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction" actively working to suppress anything that might devalue a coal-field.
posted by pompomtom at 7:14 AM on February 6

...the whole thing confuses me. Interest rates are about zero, so why isn't every government borrowing whatever is required to put solar panels (/those massive wind-towers - they look cool) on every spare spot? (In Aus: I understand that our pollies are corrupt and/or daft, because that's the system we built, but really? Everyone?)
posted by pompomtom at 7:21 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Going on several decades, it would be "pretty cheap" to end world hunger, too.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 11:58 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]

Pompomtom, most western governments don't want to get involved in the energy markets so don't want to borrow against capital spend. Renewable energy policy tends to focus on leveraging private funds to minimise public exposure. Whether this is wise is another argument

There are plenty of other issues with incumbent industries, political lobbying, greenwashing on an increasing scale, etc.
posted by biffa at 4:18 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Haven't had time to read this but definitely agree with the main points summarised here.

In the next decade, the actions required in all pathways were similar: expand renewable capacity 3.5 fold, retire coal, maintain existing gas generating capacity, and increase electric vehicle and heat pump sales to >50% of market share.

This is the key point. The debates that are being had about whether nuclear reduces overall cost (this work says no, other work says yes), about how to decarbonise steel production and aviation, all that stuff is about what we do in the 2030s really (although research needs to run now).

What we do to get to radically lower emissions in the early 2030s is known and more or less every model agrees on it. You get to a point where you keep most of your current gas generating capacity but use it less and less. Of course this would be inefficient if you set out to build it that way but the point is we already have those generators! They don't last as long when you run them in stop-start mode but who cares if you know their future life is limited anyway. Note that the pathway for countries that are still mostly on coal is different since they won't have the large stock of gas generation plants already built, those countries may end up with slightly more nuclear in their optimal mix.

It is an important message to bang home to the masses that we know how to get most of the way there already and we know it is not that expensive. A lot of "soft" climate change denialism is driven by people who deep down think there's no solution and therefore resent being reminded of it. Tell them that we can solve it for not much money and they'll suddenly stop feeling that they have to protect their mental space by denying reality.
posted by atrazine at 2:29 AM on February 8 [7 favorites]

Metafilter: deep down I think there's no solution and therefore resent being reminded of it.

Although apparently not when it comes to renewables!
posted by ec2y at 6:56 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

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