At an annual cost of roughly 1 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, deep decarbonization of all energy sectors in the Northwest is achievable but would require greater energy efficiencies, a greater reliance on the electric grid and decarbonization of energy supplies, a study commissioned by the nonprofit nonpartisan Clean Energy Transition Institute concludes.
Under the study’s Central Case pathway to decarbonization, 96 percent of the electricity in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana would be clean by 2050, and demand from the electric grid would double to provide about 55 percent of the region’s total energy needs, including transportation and energy used to heat and cool buildings.
Eileen Quigley, the Institute’s executive director, and Gabe Kwok, principal of Evolved Energy Research, presented findings of the study to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Aug. 13.
“A really important lesson from the study is how radically the electric system is going to transform,” Quigley told the Council.
“Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: An Economy-Wide Deep Decarbonization Pathways Study,” is the first in the Northwest to include all energy sectors in all four states to develop a broad plan for reaching a 2050 decarbonization target, Quigley said.
That target is to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions to 86 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Many states have a goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and because it will be more difficult to reduce emissions in the nonenergy sectors, the energy sector must assume a higher burden of the reductions, she added.
The Institute was invited to share findings of the study with the Council, which is just beginning to develop a new power plan.
“Our hope is that the Council will consider the study’s findings and the framework for reductions in framing the 8th Power Plan,” Quigley and Kwok wrote in an email to Clearing Up. “Council staff are considering a variety of modeling exercises to inform the 8th Power Plan and we thought it would be worthwhile for the staff and Council members to be aware of the rich body of work that we had completed as it is possible that data from the NWDDP study may be useful to their modeling efforts.”
The Clean Energy Transition Institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and the study was designed to answer several questions without presupposing the answers, Quigley said. One of the main questions, she told the Council, was “How does the energy sector need to transform in the most technologically and economically efficient way?” Its findings could help policymakers understand what changes should be made, and the practical implications of making them, she said.
The study has several key findings:
Electricity must be 96 percent clean by 2050, and will be used to heat and cool buildings and power vehicles that now use fossil fuels. With those changes, demands on electricity will grow from 23 percent of the region’s energy needs today to 55 percent of its needs in 2050.
Efficiency will be required to reduce total overall demand. Under the Central Case—even with a 30 percent increase in population—total energy demand will decrease by 34 percent due to energy efficiencies. The efficiencies will be from changes like switching from incandescent lights to LEDs, and from replacing inefficient equipment, which will lead to the use of things like heat pumps instead of gas-fired water heaters, or electric vehicles instead of fossil-fuel internal combustion engines.
The study assumes that by 2035, all new light-duty vehicles sold on the market, such as passenger cars, will be electric, along with about half of all medium-duty and a third of all heavy-duty vehicles. “As vehicles transition to electricity, liquid fuels decrease from one-half of today’s energy demand to one-fifth by 2050,” the study’s key findings state.
It also finds that $11.1 billion can be saved over the next 30 years if the Northwest and California electric grids are integrated and expanded.
The study analyzed eight different models, comparing a “Business As Usual Case” with a “Central Case,” and offering six other scenarios under the Central Case that represent supply and demand variables.
These scenarios include getting to a 100 percent clean energy grid (instead of 96 percent in the Central Case), prohibiting any new gas-fired power plants after 2020, and increasing the transmission between the Northwest and California.
All of the scenarios assume current hydropower generation will remain the same.
Costs are compared to the Business As Usual Case. Under the Central Case, the annual costs of decarbonization increase incrementally each year starting in 2020, and peak at $9.8 billion above BAU in 2038. The costs then begin to decrease each year to about $6.1 billion above BAU by 2050.
“The cumulative costs of decarbonizing the energy system in the Central Case are 9.5 percent higher than the capital and operating expenses of the Business as Usual Case’s energy system, roughly 1 percent of the region’s total GDP in 2017 of more than $870 billion,” the executive summary stated.
Quigley and Kwok added in their email, “We would expect the incremental costs to decline after 2050 due to: (a) projected fossil fuel prices continue to increase; and (b) the cost of low-carbon and efficient equipment continues to decrease.”
The largest costs, by far, are from demand-side equipment, due to the number of vehicles, refrigerators, hot water heaters and other equipment that needs to be replaced. It does not include the cost of supply-side equipment, such as wind and solar power plants.
Council members expressed appreciation for the study. Council Vice Chairman Richard Devlin, of Oregon, said he appreciated its thoroughness, but noted there are serious roadblocks to achieving its goals.
As an example, Devlin noted how few electric vehicles there are on the market today, while the study assumes that 15 years from now all cars and SUVs sold on the market will be electric. “How we get from A to B is a lot more difficult,” he said.
“We do not think this is easy,” Quigley agreed. That’s why getting the information to policymakers about what needs to happen is one of the Institute’s next steps, she said.
In her email to Clearing Up, she added, “The study makes clear that with existing technologies and price-points, decarbonization is plausible but implementing low-carbon strategies is challenging.
“Having policymakers understand today in 2019 where we must be in 2030, 2040, and 2050 to decarbonize the Northwest energy economy, [and] which pathways should be pursued and which not, would ideally mean they will make decisions that will head us in the right direction.”
Editor's note—An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that the 2050 target for reductions of energy-related CO2 emssions was 86 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The correct target is 86 percent below 1990 levels.