In the last decade, the cost of wind, solar, and battery storage has declined precipitously, beyond even the most aggressive forecasts. Add continued cost declines to shifting public perception, and we have a moment ripe for sweeping change in how we produce and use energy. Still, the question remains: can we move fast enough to hit the net zero emissions goals that many experts say are needed by 2050?
A new study from the University of California Berkeley and GridLab has laid out an accelerated plan for 90 percent carbon-free power in the U.S. by 2035. The authors suggest what recently may have sounded like a fantasy – we can have a clean grid, without increasing costs to the customers who rely on it, within 15 years.
This estimate comes as major crises in public health, the global economy, and the climate are converging into an urgent need for action – and quite possibly, a watershed moment that accelerates clean energy investment. Here’s why:
Clean energy plays an important role in public health and related social justice inequities. Research has long shown that, at least in North America, harmful air pollutants are more concentrated in underprivileged communities, and recent Harvard research ties pollution to an increased COVID-19 death rate. Increasing wind and solar energy can reduce harmful pollutants and help us build a healthier and more equitable society. The Berkeley study authors assert that a 90 percent carbon-free plan would nearly eliminate the harmful particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide produced by the power sector, saving 85,000 lives and $1.2 trillion in health and environmental costs.
Investing in new, clean energy as part of a stimulus will put Americans back to work. Last year the solar industry alone employed nearly 250,000 workers. Jobs in clean energy also pay higher wages compared to the national average and are more open to workers without a college education. If we increase investment, the 2035 report forecasts that 500,000 new jobs could be created each year. What’s more, the report’s authors predict that implementing a 90 percent carbon-free plan would inject $1.7 trillion into the economy and lower customers’ electric bills by 10 percent.
Power is only part of the carbon equation, but its role is significant. Specifically, phasing out coal and ramping up renewables can make a big difference in the carbon footprint of U.S. electricity. The authors estimate that a 90 percent carbon-free power plan would reduce total U.S. carbon emissions by 27 percent compared to 2010 levels. Reliability could be maintained with a combination of baseload nuclear and hydro power resources, paired with flexible natural gas, battery storage, and demand-response resources that balance swings in output from wind and solar generation.
Making smart investments in infrastructure can help address all three of these challenges that will define our future. What’s needed now is support from policymakers.
The authors emphasize that achieving a 90 percent carbon-free vision within 15 years will require policies that encourage investment, including extending investment and production tax credits for wind and solar power and applying them to utility-scale storage. Nuclear and hydro power will need support to avoid retirement and continue supplying large amounts of carbon-free power. We believe that natural gas will also remain central to the equation as a lower-carbon alternative to coal that supports grid reliability, especially where nuclear and hydro resources are scarce.
Bechtel has a long history of supporting our customers’ vision for clean energy, from the Hoover Dam and Ivanpah Solar, to the Vogtle nuclear facility and California Valley Solar Ranch. At the very least, the Berkeley study highlights the importance of making additional smart investments now to address both current and future challenges. It will be up to our local, state, and federal leaders to work together with industry to support a diverse portfolio of energy resources that is the lowest-cost path to a resilient, low-carbon future.