Science Policy

Decarbonizing the energy sector is the first hurdle to meet President Biden’s vision of a net zero emissions economy by 2050

02.19.21 | 4 min read | Text by Federation of American Scientists

Addressing the climate crisis is one of the Biden administration’s key goals. On January 27th, the president issued an executive order stating that the U.S. should aim for net zero emissions, economy-wide, by 2050. The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing last week to discuss reaching this goal that featured leaders from industry, academia, and the environmental justice community.

The need to decarbonize the energy sector

To begin slowing the effects of climate change, many experts believe it is imperative to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, with the first step being to decarbonize the energy sector by 2035. This perspective was emphasized during the hearing by Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress, who explained how decarbonizing the energy sector would eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from electricity-generating facilities. As of 2016, the five main sources of electricity in the U.S. were natural gas (34%), coal (30%), nuclear energy (20%), hydroelectricity (7%), and wind (6%). The burning of fossil fuels accounts for 98% of the greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. Other emissions include nitrous oxide from some coal burning plants, and sulfur hexafluoride from electricity transmission and distribution systems. While the energy sector’s emissions are currently decreasing at a rate of about 3% per year, it is estimated that levels will continue to decline in the 2020s, rise again in the 2030s, and then remain flat through 2050. All of this will occur as the economy expands and demands for electricity increase.

Challenges and potential solutions

There are many challenges to decarbonizing the energy sector within the next 15 years. As other industries increase their use of electricity, such as the auto industry to meet growing demand for electric vehicles, the energy sector will have to balance the need to increase its capacity and efficiency with reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. Other challenges include adapting to the growing use of renewable energy sources by developing better batteries, reducing wasteful energy consumption, and reducing the amount of carbon released into the air from power plants.

There are also a number of potential solutions for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector.

Commercial buildings consume a massive amount of electricity in the U.S., and to reduce energy consumption, buildings can be updated with energy efficient appliances and lighting, or greenery to cool rooftops and urban areas. Specifically, widespread use of LED lighting (as opposed to not using LEDs at all) could save 348 terawatt-hours, which is the equivalent output of 44 large electric power plants, and save over $30 billion. In addition, green roofs can reduce a building’s energy consumption by 0.7% compared to a conventional roof, and lower city-wide temperatures by up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wind and solar energy are projected to grow in the next few years, and while their costs have decreased dramatically, their utility will also depend on innovations in energy storage. In 2010, solar power cost $0.37 per kilowatt-hour, and by 2018, the cost declined to only $0.09 per kilowatt-hour. Natural gas, a source of carbon emissions, is one of the least expensive forms of electricity and costs about $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. As the U.S. relies more on renewable energy, there is a growing movement toward developing a flexible power grid with a wider deployment of technologies that store energy during periods of lower production. The most common type of energy storage for the grid today is pumped hydroelectric storage. Electricity is used to pump water uphill to a reservoir where it is stored. When the grid needs more power, that water is released, and it runs downhill through turbines to generate electricity. This process allows energy to be stored for extended periods of time, though it is costly to maintain and new facilities could cause adverse environmental impacts. Moreover, lithium-ion batteries have decreased in cost over the past few years, but can only economically store electricity for about four hours, and further technological advancements are necessary to improve their performance.

Carbon capture technologies can pull carbon emissions out of the air to prevent them from causing further climate damage. One method is a post-combustion scrubbing device which is added to a smokestack that releases carbon, such as those on coal, gas, or oil-fired generators. Some other potential options that can remove carbon from the air include:

It is clear that much needs to be done to slow the effects of climate change. Fortunately, there are several emerging technologies that could help reduce the U.S. carbon footprint by 2050. It is expected that the Biden administration and Congress will continue to make achieving a net zero emissions economy a priority, and we encourage the CSPI community to participate in serving as a resource to federal officials on this topic.