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Study finds US can reach net-zero emissions by spending 3% more on energy


Five different decarbonization pathways examined

Grid may need to triple in size by midcentury

The U.S. can completely decarbonize its economy by midcentury without spending significantly more on energy, according to a new report released Dec. 15 by a team of researchers at Princeton University.

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While the U.S. is projected to spend approximately $9.4 trillion on energy over the next decade, it could pursue any of five different decarbonization pathways each of which would only cost about 3%, or $300 billion, more than a business-as-usual approach, the report determined.

Produced by the Princeton researchers in cooperation with external collaborators, the 346-page report is the first to quantify with such specificity the energy infrastructure needed in the coming years to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the school said in a Dec. 15 news release.

The report also projected expected winners and losers down to the county level, finding that a massive clean energy push would create approximately 500,000 to 1 million jobs in this decade alone while displacing some workers in areas that rely on extractive fossil fuel industries.

"Everybody seriously interested in the crucial question of this country's energy-climate future — not least the new Biden-Harris administration — needs to understand the findings of this extraordinary study," John Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, said in the news release.

While researchers used different assumptions to model the five different pathways, all of the scenarios assumed that coal will no longer be used for power generation by 2030. That would avoid 100,000 premature deaths linked to air pollution by midcentury, amounting to nearly $1 trillion in public health benefits, the report estimated.

A "high electrification" scenario assumes that 100% of cars are electric by 2050, while a "less high electrification" scenario contemplates the U.S. using liquid fuels for longer. No new nuclear plants are built under the report's "all renewables" scenario, which also assumes fossil fuel use is completely eliminated by 2050. Finally, a "limited renewable" case foresees a role for nuclear power along with carbon capture and sequestration technology, and a high-biomass scenario assumes the conversion of some currently productive farmland to energy crops.

"Since getting to net-zero looks affordable, the next key question is if we are going to do this, how do we want to do it? Can we do it equitably, and so that enough people see clear benefits that there is an enduring coalition of support?" co-author Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor and energy systems modeler at Princeton, said in the news release.

Grid expansion

The report also envisions expanding the U.S. electric transmission grid 60% by 2030, warning that it may need to triple in size by midcentury.

"The current power grid took 150 years to build. Now, to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It's a huge amount of change," Jenkins said.

Funders of the research included BP PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp., two oil majors with decarbonization plans that vary in ambition. BP plans to shrink its oil and gas production by 40% in the next 10 years, while Exxon announced on Dec. 14 that it will aim to reduce its upstream emissions 15% to 20% by 2025.

The Dec. 15 report also comes as the CEOs of U.S. electric utilities with net-zero goals have called President-elect Joe Biden's $2 trillion plan to completely decarbonize the nation's power grid by 2035 "aggressive."

As of Dec. 4, 70% of the 30 largest U.S. electric and gas utilities had net-zero equivalent targets or were moving to comply with a similarly aggressive state mandate, according to a review of utilities' plans by S&P Global Market Intelligence. As part of their aggressive targets, most of the companies are banking on major advances in related technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration, advanced nuclear reactors, green hydrogen, longer-lasting battery storage, and carbon offset credits.

Looking at the top 30 oil and gas companies in Europe and North America based on market capitalization in July, S&P Global Market Intelligence found that none in the U.S. or Canada had set net-zero emissions goals.