New Report Finds Power Sector is Halfway to Zero Emissions

Physics

By: Hannah Pell

 In 2005, future projections for emissions published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in their Annual Energy Outlook were bleak; business-as-usual for the power sector meant that carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels could reach up to 3,000 million metric tons by 2020 (equivalent to CO2 emissions from roughly 544 million homes’ electricity use over one year).

However, where we are today is much different, and for the better. In a new report, “Halfway to Zero: Progress towards a Carbon-Free Power Sector,” researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that emissions from the power industry in 2020 were 1,450 million metric tons — about 50% lower than initial projections more than a decade ago. By this metric, the power sector has progressed halfway to zero emissions in this timeframe. Researchers also found other encouraging statistics: consumer electricity costs were 18% lower, costs to human health and climate were 92% and 52% lower, and the number of jobs in electricity generation was 29% higher.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2021)
 
What drives emission reductions? One big factor has been the shift to cleaner energy generation sources and more efficient technologies. “Halfway to Zero” notes that wind and solar outperformed by 13 times more generation than was expected. Nuclear energy continued to produce one-fifth of our total nationwide electricity generation. And the switch from coal to natural gas resulting from the shale boom over the last decade has played a crucial role in driving down both electricity costs and emissions (though natural gas comes with its own environmental risks, including potential drinking water contamination and methane leaks from uncapped wells). Advances in batteries and energy storage technologies have aided in cost-effective solutions for decarbonizing the power sector, whose emissions reductions alone account for a majority (53%) across the entire energy industry.

“We now have many more technologies on the demand side and many more tools to get this done,” said Katherine Hamilton of The Energy Gang, discussing the report’s conclusions. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Policy, too, guides our energy future. Notably, the EIA does not assume future policy changes in their energy outlook prediction models; they offer a “policy-neutral reference case,” which tends to result in overly conservative estimates. The “Halfway to Zero” report, therefore, is a direct comparison between what emissions could have looked like absent any policy intervention, energy market restructuring, or major energy technology advancements. Using other points of comparison, reductions appear more modest; the decrease through 2019 was approximately 33%, implying the United States is one-third to its zero-emissions goal. Regardless, policy action on stronger emissions regulations significantly reduced the calculated social costs of power supply, including electricity bills, climate damage, and health impacts.

Total energy sector emissions, business-as-usual versus actual CO2 emissions. 

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2021).


Though encouraging news, challenges remain in order to reach net-zero emissions, including sufficiently scaling up wind, solar, and storage, as well as electrifying other industries (including transportation and manufacturing). Decarbonization across these other industries has made slower progress than in the power sector.

“Halfway to Zero” offers two key lessons. First, emissions reductions depend directly on policy and technological advancement reinforcing one another. Second, adaptation to new policy and technology solutions is important, as our ability to predict the future is highly limited. Looking to the past to understand how we accomplished these emissions reductions is imperative for our continued goal to totally decarbonize, because a clean and just energy future is by no means guaranteed.

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