304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
New research shows what big infrastructure projects, like huge building projects, would need to start right away if Biden’s goal of zero emissions by 2050 is to be reached.
If the US wants to take climate change seriously, it will need to build a huge amount of new energy infrastructure in the next 10 years, laying down steel and concrete at a rate that is hard to imagine right now.
This is one of the conclusions of a major study released on Tuesday by a team of energy experts at Princeton University. They laid out several very detailed scenarios for how the country could cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and a lot of states and businesses support this goal, which will help avoid the worst effects of global warming.
The study’s results are both good news and a wake-up call. It seems technically possible and even affordable to reach “net zero” by 2050. There are ways to get there, such as using only renewable energy, which is what many environmentalists want or using other technologies like nuclear power or carbon capture. Each choice has different social and financial costs and benefits.
The researchers found that the United States would have to make a common set of big changes over the next ten years if it wanted to stay on track for zero emissions. That first groundwork has to be done pretty quickly.
Christopher Greig, a senior scientist at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, was surprised by how much we have to build in such a short amount of time. “We can do this, and we can pay for it, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to do it.”
Researchers at Princeton used some of the most detailed models of America’s energy system ever made to figure out which combinations of technologies could get rid of emissions for the least amount of money. Their work comes after a detailed report from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network in October that came to the same conclusions.
First, the United States could make a lot of progress over the next ten years by quickly expanding solutions that are already in use, like wind, solar, electric cars, and heat pumps. To do this, governments and businesses would have to invest an extra $2.5 trillion by 2030.
Both studies found that by the middle of the century, at least 90% of the country’s electricity could come from clean sources. The job gets harder after that, though.
A lot of the economy still depends on fossil fuels, and there aren’t any easy ways to change that. How do we fuel planes and trucks that can’t easily switch to batteries? What about the steel and cement industries? How can we keep the lights on when neither the wind nor the sun is blowing?
The studies found that there are options that make sense. Batteries, some of the existing nuclear reactors, and a large fleet of natural gas plants that run only sometimes or have been changed to burn clean hydrogen could back up wind and solar power. Switchgrass could be grown on millions of acres of farmland. It is a more sustainable source of biofuels than the corn-based ethanol that is used now. Carbon dioxide emissions could be balanced out by using machines that pull carbon dioxide out of the air.
Most of these technologies, though, are still in their early stages. This would need to change fast.
Take heavy industry, for example. The Princeton study found that if manufacturers want to capture carbon dioxide from cement factories, they need to start building early demonstration plants and thousands of miles of pipelines to move the captured gas to underground burial sites in states like Texas.
Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton, said, “We need to build up our options right now.” “Both for the problems we know are coming and as a backup plan in case the solutions we think will work today don’t.
The studies found that, if done right, getting to net zero seems to be generally affordable. This is mostly because technologies like wind and solar have become so much cheaper than anyone expected over the past ten years. In all of the scenarios that were looked at, energy costs as a share of the economy would stay lower than they were in the 2000s.
But there are still a lot of big problems. One is the chance of fighting over how to use the land.
The Princeton study used detailed maps to figure out where all those new solar arrays and wind farms might go. In one central possibility, they could cover an area of land that is about the same size as Wyoming and Colorado put together. Huge wind farms could be built in the ocean off the coasts of Massachusetts and Florida.
If policymakers decided to only use energy that comes from natural sources, they might need twice as much land.
Eric Larson, a senior research engineer at Princeton, said, “It’s not a question of whether we have enough land because we do.” “But with so many new projects, you have to wonder if there will be opposition in the area.”
Even now, some wind and solar projects are met with opposition from landowners or farmers who worry that the projects will cause problems in their area.
The Princeton researchers also looked at a situation in which wind and solar power didn’t grow quickly and a lot of advanced nuclear reactors or natural gas plants with carbon capture were needed. Both of these technologies are still in their early stages.
Another possible problem is that nobody knows how eagerly Americans will buy plug-in cars or give up their gas furnaces in favor of electric ones. If electrification takes a long time to catch on, we might have to find other ways to replace oil and gas that could be hard, like using a lot of biofuels or green hydrogen.
There are also jobs to think about. Net zero would mean getting rid of coal and cutting oil and gas use by a lot, which would put hundreds of thousands of people out of work. (BP and Exxon Mobil, two oil companies, helped pay for part of the Princeton study.)
On the other hand, there would be millions of new green jobs for people who fix up homes or build wind farms, though they might not all be in the same places. There could be big problems in some states, like North Dakota or Louisiana.
“One benefit is that we can see this change coming, so policymakers can take steps to help workers,” said Emily Grubert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech who has studied job loss. “But we have to admit that this might hurt some people.”
Even though the United States has been reducing its emissions in recent years, these efforts would have to pick up a lot more speed if the country wants to reach its goal of having no emissions by 2050.
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network made a report with a list of many policies that the federal government could use. Many of these steps are ones that Mr. Biden has backed, like a national standard for clean electricity or money for green technologies. Some are more subtle, like making it easier for transmission lines to get permission to be built.
But the report said that everyone in society would have to work together. For example, cities could change their building codes to encourage electric heating, and states could reduce their reliance on cars by making public transportation better. Politicians would have to figure out how to get the public to accept the big changes that are coming while keeping the most vulnerable Americans safe.
“One question is whether net zero by 2050 can become a national goal that everyone agrees on, like building the interstate highway system or going to the moon,” said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University who led the report.
That could be the hardest part. Even though Mr. Biden wants to refocus every federal agency on climate policy, his most ambitious plans could be slowed down by a Congress that is not in agreement.
Susan Tierney, an energy consultant with the Analysis Group who was not involved in either report, said, “These modeling studies are very good, but they assume everything will go perfectly.” “They can show us how to use technology to get to net zero, but they can’t show us how to solve all those annoying political and social problems in the real world.”
Both studies show, though, that there’s not much time to waste. Today’s new cars and factories will be around for a long time. If they aren’t cleaned up soon, it will be a lot harder to cut emissions down the road.
“2050 might seem like a long way off,” Dr. Jenkins said. “But if you think about when policies, business decisions, and investments of capital need to be made, it’s more like the day after tomorrow.”
READ MORE ARTICLES: