Achieving Biden’s Climate Moonshot Requires Heavy Lifting by Electric Power Industry

By Teri Viswanath

May 2021

In late April, President Biden established a new greenhouse gas emissions target for the U.S., pledging that the country would achieve a 50% to 52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net pollution by 2030. The new target, far loftier than the earlier Obama-era goal of reaching a 28% reduction by 2025, could be viewed as the current generation’s moonshot opportunity for addressing climate change.

By design, the 2030 target will greatly accelerate the current pace of emissions reductions, with the White House eyeing all major sectors of the economy for contribution, as it re-joins the global race to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. At present, there are five major sectors that contribute to the current 6.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent of emissions each year. This represents about 15% of the world’s man-made atmospheric pollution, with the U.S. currently the second largest emitter in the world after China.

2014 Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuel Combustion and Some Industrial Processes
Source: EPA

Transportation is the largest single emitter class in the U.S., accounting for roughly a third of total annual emissions. Yet, stationary emitters such as power plants and factories are not far behind automobiles, trucks and airplanes, both contributing about a quarter of total emissions. Rounding out the administration’s list of large emitters are buildings and agriculture, with a combined contribution roughly equal to factories.

Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2019

Source: EPA

The White House fact sheet, accompanying President Biden’s announcement, outlines in broad strokes how the administration intends to meet the moment. On the table are proposals to curb tailpipe emissions through funding low-carbon alternatives, investing in building efficiency and green hydrogen for industrial processes along with enhancing land-based carbon sinks. But in truth, even the most optimistic modeling suggests that these segments at best contribute to a third of the reductions needed by the end of the decade.

Practically speaking, the heavy lifting required to meet the 2030 deadline will have to come from the electric power industry, either through direct reduction in power plant emissions or through aggressive beneficial electrification.

The good news is that the electric power industry has already made tremendous strides toward deep de-carbonization. Last year, 39.5% of U.S. electricity came from zero-carbon emitting sources such as nuclear, wind and solar, up from 29.9% a decade earlier, according to the EIA. Moreover, new research from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Lab suggests that the power sector has already shed about 40% of emissions since 2005 and might be halfway to the net-zero target looming ahead in 2035.

A new Berkeley Lab report, aptly named Halfway to Zero: Progress towards a Carbon-Free Power Sector, highlights that U.S. power emissions were 52% lower in 2020 than EIA predicted they would be back in 2005. The sizeable reductions, compared to the agency’s business-as-usual projections, came about as a result of efficiency gains or lower-than-expected energy use and the growing dependency upon low-carbon supplies. Moreover, Berkeley researchers noted that wind and solar power dramatically outperformed expectations, delivering 13 times more generation in 2020 than projected. Yet the lion’s share of these reductions were achieved by switching from coal to natural gas — a bridge-strategy that doesn’t have a second act for the country’s new pledge. With 50% to upward of 75% of the 2030 targeted reductions likely to come from the electric power industry, the next decade of required reductions from this sector will prove much more challenging to realize.

New research from the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland tends to agree with this electricity-centric view on the reductions and underscores how heavy the lift could be for the power sector. According to the report, there will be little to no electricity generated by coal and natural gas plants without carbon capture and storage — notably, technology that is expensive to build and to operate, with commercial drivers few and far between in the absence of regulatory incentives. Yet, here too, there is reason for hope. Carbon capture has been a consistent and recurring focus of the current administration, with corporate support — from Big Oil to Big Tech — pouring into this technology. 

Without a doubt the country’s new pledge is long on ambition and, currently, short on specifics. But what is clear is that success will require sweeping changes in the U.S. electricity sector. By the end of the decade, the U.S. electricity sector could be vastly changed — with further and greater upheaval in power generation resources and greater dependency from all other emitting sectors to align with the president’s ambitious target. 

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