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Broad US power sector emissions reduction feasible, but influencing decision makers is key

Highlights

Zero natural gas in NY buildings by around 2040 wanted: Bryk

95 state utility regulators could tip scales in favor of clean energy

New York — Policies and legal tools already exist to decarbonize the US power sector, but political will is lacking and influencing key decision makers like public utility commissioners could be a way to advance carbon dioxide emissions reduction goals, energy experts said.

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"There is broad consensus that preventing the worst impacts of climate change requires keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius through the end of the 21st Century, which requires steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions," Mike O'Boyle, director of electricity policy at climate policy think tank Energy Innovation, said during a panel discussion Thursday evening at Columbia University Law School in New York.

We need to globally avoid up to 55% of cumulative emissions between now and 2050 compared to business as usual, O'Boyle said, and annual emissions need to be 40% to 70% below business as usual emissions.

And while climate change impacts are being experienced in the form of droughts, floods, and wildfires and other concerning ways, there is hope in "well-crafted coherent climate policy," O'Boyle said. The policies that matter are already working in many ways, including appliance standards, building codes and renewable portfolio standards.

RPS programs have moved international markets and driven down costs for wind and solar power to where they are the lowest-cost source of new electricity in most of the US, O'Boyle said, and one in five Americans live in a state with 100% clean energy goals.

"We have the technology we need to stabilize emissions," Sonia Aggarwal, vice president at Energy Innovation, said. A lot of zero-carbon power sources are coming into the market at "amazingly low cost," Aggarwal said.

There are opportunities to make buildings more energy efficient and to get natural gas and other fossil fuels out of them through electrification of water heating and air handling, she said.

Dale Bryk, deputy secretary for energy and environment for New York State wants the "most ambitious package of legislation" to address GHG gas emissions reduction than any other state. Such legislation has thus far failed to pass in the democrat-controlled legislature.

And Bryk said she would like a target on the order of zero natural gas in any buildings by 2040, possibly as part of the climate legislation being negotiated.

Importantly, Aggarwal said the cash flow already exists to reach some of these goals as we spend globally $5 trillion on energy each year and $6 trillion on infrastructure. The money should flow to "green choices and not brown choices," Aggarwal said.

However, policy and utility regulation structure are slowing the transition in many cases. If we adopted 100% clean energy standards in the power sector we could eliminate one-third of all GHG emissions for power generation, Aggarwal said. And if you use that clean electricity to power transportation and eliminate fossil fuel burning from buildings you can get an additional 20% emissions reduction.

Public utilities commissions the US make most of the decisions with regard to decarbonizing the power sector. "Once we understand who makes the decisions ... we should be thinking about what can we do to help them make decisions that will reduce GHG emissions," Aggarwal said.

There are 194 PUC commissioners across the US and about 95 of them constitute a majority "who have enormous influence" over reaching 100% clean power targets, she said.

'DEAD ENDS'

We need to avoid emissions "dead ends" that decrease emissions in the short term, but then lock in those lower emissions levels, with an example being power sector coal to gas switching, Michael Gerrard, professor of professional practice and faculty director at Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said.

It is technically feasible to reduce GHG emissions by 80% and it would require complete decarbonization of the power sector by 2050, Gerrard said. And it could be achieved at a cost of 1% of US gross domestic product, he said.

"I'm optimistic we have the technical capability, but we don't have the political will," Gerrard said.

Gerrard is involved in an effort to recruit pro-bono lawyers to draft model policies to help reduce emissions that can be shared with elected officials.

-- Jared Anderson, jared.anderson@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, newsdesk@spglobal.com