The key to breaking out of this catastrophic loop is to switch to a power generation system that doesn’t rely so heavily on combustion. So how is it going ?
Overall, 38% of the electricity generated in the United States last year at the utility, industrial or commercial scale (i.e. not counting residential solar panels) was generated by means that did not directly produce carbon dioxide emissions, compared to 30% over 10 years earlier. This excludes electricity generated from wood and other biomass, because while some characterize the overall growing and burning process as carbon neutral, the evidence does not seem to confirm this, at least for wood.
Thanks to a significant shift from high-emitting coal to moderate-emitting natural gas in power generation, the sector’s CO2 emissions have fallen even more than the statistics above indicate, falling 29% since 2011 , by 36% since hitting an all-time high in 2007. come from replacing gas-fired power plants with emission-free sources – remembering that the methane in natural gas is, when it leaks from wells, pipes or storage facilities, a potent greenhouse gas although relatively short-lived.
Some states are large net importers of electricity, with Massachusetts and Delaware getting the majority of their electricity from other states in 2019, and other net exporters, so this map does not consistently reflect sources of electricity consumed in each state. Still, that’s in the ballpark for the most part, and the lag is probably less significant when comparing the evolution of the power generation mix over time. Since 2011, 37 states have seen the carbon-free share of electricity generation increase, with some in the center of the country making huge gains. But the energy transition has reversed in a few states, most along the west coast and northeast.
The pullback in the Pacific Northwest may be a bit of a fluke, as Idaho, Oregon and Washington get most of their electricity from hydroelectric dams and 2011 was a very wet year, resulting in very high hydro generation, while 2021 was a bit below average. . Less hydro was also an issue in California, but perhaps not so random given that hydro generation in 2021 was less than half the 1990-2011 average and only two years in the last decade have been above this average. Persistent drought and diminishing snowpacks have delayed the state’s energy transition, as has the 2013 shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant.
Yet California is clearly making this transition, with utility-scale solar and wind power accounting for more than a quarter of the state’s electricity generation in 2021 and major battery banks now beginning to facilitate the evening transition from abundant solar energy to none, which allows the share of solar to continue to increase. The same cannot be said for the Northeast, where nuclear plant shutdowns in Massachusetts and New York and the natural gas boom in Pennsylvania have made the region more dependent on fossil fuels for power generation than it was ten years ago, and where wind and solar power have so far made only modest progress.
In a major report released in May on “The Future of Energy Storage,” researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative estimated that without restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, the Northeast (which they defined as New England plus New York) will have even higher emissions per kilowatt from electricity generation in 2050 than today. It was a huge contrast to the other two US electricity markets studied in the report, with the Southeast projected to see a 59% drop in CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour by 2050 and Texas by 78%. – again, in the absence of any policy aimed at restricting or otherwise discouraging such emissions.
This do-nothing scenario will not come to pass, given that most Northeastern states already have ambitious emission reduction targets and the proposed climate bill (aka Inflation Reduction Act) signed into law by the President Joe Biden this month will give a boost to non-carbon energy. But the modeling results indicate that the North East faces unique decarbonization challenges, primarily because, as MIT economist Richard Schmalensee explained in a podcast interview that succinctly summarizes the report:
• Its climate is not conducive to solar,
• Its population density makes it difficult to add onshore wind generation, and
• Nuclear power plants find it difficult to compete in their electricity markets.
The southeast, on the other hand, has plenty of sunshine, a less dense population, and vertically integrated utilities that can, if desired, keep nuclear power plants running (and even build expensive new ones). Texas is, well, Texas, with vast open spaces perfectly suited for solar and wind power generation.
Given that the southeastern states and Texas likely won’t legislate a path to zero-emissions electricity anytime soon, that’s fortuitous. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Liam Denning and energy expert Jeff Davies recently showed with an accounting of renewable energy potential by congressional district, places that tend to elect Republicans also tend to be perfect. for wind and/or solar power generation and battery storage. And as I discovered last month, many red states also have a high share of all-electric households, which would facilitate the planned transition from natural gas as a heating and cooking fuel. Much of red America seems destined to become carbon-free or at least carbon-free, whether it likes it or not.
Blue America, at least its northeast chapter, is already relatively carbon-light. The region has mostly stopped burning coal to generate electricity, it has much of its own hydroelectric power and access to closer proximity to Canada, and its residents are more likely than those in other regions to live in apartments, take public transport and work in energy-efficient sectors. Seven of the 10 states with the lowest energy-related carbon dioxide emissions per capita in 2019 (the most recent year for which the US Energy Information Administration has estimates) were in the northeast .
Now, however, comes the hardest part. After decades of flat or declining demand, the Northeast will need significantly more electricity to power electric cars and replace oil and gas furnaces with heat pumps. Providing it will be a challenge in any scenario, and it could be particularly difficult if the region tries to do so without a continued role for natural gas – which is currently the plan in New York, where the 2019 Leadership Act climate change and community protection calls for 100% emission-free electricity by 2040. According to the MIT study, electricity prices in the North East would be almost twice as high in 2050 under a zero-emissions scenario as in a scenario limiting emissions to 5 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity (to put this into context, the US electric industry’s CO2 emissions were around 386 grams per kilowatt-hour in 2020). Prices would also be much higher in the Northeast under the zero emissions scenario than in the other regions studied.
Yes, these are just the results of an economic modeling exercise, based on a bunch of assumptions that may not materialize. Still, it’s kind of strange to contemplate that over the next few decades it might prove easier to be a climate hawk in Georgia or Texas than in Massachusetts or New York.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Energy-rich Texas should love climate bill: Liam Denning
Climate bill won’t halve emissions by 2030: Eduardo Porter
American Green Energy is Surprisingly Republican: Denning and Davies
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. Former editorial director of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion