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Policy change needed now to reach 2050 clean energy transition goal: professor


Transmission system needs to double in 10-20 years

Rapid infrastructure growth is a challenge

Upfront renewable costs lead to lower fuel costs

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  • Kassia Micek
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A large-scale, national effort is needed to prepare the US power grid for the clean energy transition that is underway in order to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, a speaker said June 9 during the EEI 2021 virtual conference.

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The momentous transition is ambitious and urgent, but also important, said Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.

"We really need to approve this as a big, national building effort," Jenkins said about the planning and organization needed to get rid of the reliance on oil and also tackle climate change. "We need to be doing everything all at once. We need to get started right away."

A report by Princeton University's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment identified five pathways to achieve the 2050 goal considering factors such as electrification, biomass and different levels of renewables, Jenkins said. All paths include the six pillars of decarbonization:

  • End-use energy efficiency and electrification;
  • Clean electricity: wind and solar generation, transmission, firm power;
  • Bioenergy and other zero-carbon fuels and feedstocks;
  • Carbon capture, utilization and storage;
  • Reduced non-carbon dioxide emissions;
  • And enhanced land sinks.

"If you try to remove one of these ... the whole edifice might fall down," Jenkins said. "This is nothing less than a transformational change in how we use energy on all areas," Jenkins said.

There are currently 14 US states, plus the District of Columbia, that have official goals for 100% renewables or net-zero power, with another five states with aspirational or proposed goals, according a collection of data by S&P Global Platts. Only 11 US states have no clean energy or renewable goals whatsoever. The remaining states have some sort of clean energy goal on the books.

Facing challenges

The challenge will be that fairly rapid infrastructure growth is needed over the next decade to handle the increase in renewable generation, because transmission projects take time, in order for the transmission system to be at scale in the 2030s, Jenkins said. It will also mean the phasing out of all coal power plants and transition off of natural gas.

While wind and solar have upfront costs, that initial investment is swapped for lower fuel costs once more renewables are on the system, which benefits businesses and households over time, Jenkins said.

"As we transition to a net-zero economy, we'll diminish or eliminate emissions," Jenkins said, adding the air pollution benefits alone are enough to justify the transition.

The Princeton University report did not focus on future technologies, such as hydrogen, advanced nuclear or long-duration storage, and what difference that would make to the clean energy transition.

"We need to be driving those down in costs in the next decade," Jenkins said, adding similar to how wind, solar and storage were in the last decade to be ready for primetime now.