Decarbonizing our energy system

By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

A conflicting range of policies is being put forth on how to deal with the threat of climate change. Given the complexity of sorting out the full range of options a new modeling tool has been developed which evaluates over 50 decarbonization strategies to meet the federal mandates from the Clean Power Plan. Known as the Energy Policy Simulator, it was developed by Energy Innovation of San Francisco and is the subject of an article by Gavin Bade.

The plan establishes that solutions exist and that they will be profitable. Unfortunately, there will be winners and losers. The plan will provide “policymakers ‘an objective, quantitative tool’ for evaluating different decarbonization strategies.”  Many options are possible. It identifies the combination of policies which would meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan, producing $30 billion in savings by 2025 in the electrical sector. If public health and climate benefits are included the savings could reach $200 billion.

The policies include a nationwide 25 percent renewable standard, retiring 3 GW of coal plant production annually, a 50 percent improvement in building lighting efficiency, a 3 percent improvement in industrial efficiency and a 6 percent annual increase in coal generation efficiency.

The results of the model are national and not divided into regions or states. While the nation as a whole benefits, costs and benefits are not evenly distributed across the country which could give rise to strong resistance.

The financial and environmental benefits from these policies assume implementation will start in 2016. If delayed to 2020, emission reductions will be cut 25 percent by 2030.

Meeting the additional need to reduce carbon emissions stemming from an agreement with China will necessitate the development of another set of policies impacting the entire economy. The policies selected include stricter vehicles, building and industrial efficiency standards and rebates for efficient and electric cars. Implementing them is projected to produce $600 billion in savings but is likely to intensify resistance to such actions.

An additional policy scenario was constructed in which the U.S. achieves net zero carbon emissions by 2050. While the goal is technically possible political resistance is likely to be daunting. Perhaps an international agreement will be reached in Paris that provides a platform to guide international reductions in carbon emissions.

While further carbon reductions in other sectors by the U.S. and other countries are needed to control global climate change, the Energy Policy Simulator provides a reasonable tool to assess the major options.

The resistance to curbing carbon emissions comes from interests utilizing fossil fuels. Rather than attack the need to cut carbon emissions, Exxon links the use of fossil fuels to progress. Their paper, The Outlook for Energy: A view to 2040, postulates that the coming decades will enable roughly three billion people from China, India and other non-OECD countries to join the ranks of the middle class and benefit from modern technologies and energy. They see the combustion of oil, natural gas and coal as essential to economic progress through 2040 with nuclear power and renewables playing less significant roles.

As political wrangling over controlling carbon emissions persists, the utilization of efficiency, renewable energy and batteries expand as their costs and performance continue to improve. The question remains whether their use will expand rapidly enough to keep climate change below the 2oC target.

The Energy Policy Simulator is available at utilitydive.com/news/how-to-decarbonize-the-us-energy-system-in-14-charts/408669/.

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