Decarbonizing the US by 2050

A Decarbonized U.S. by 2050 Is Probably Impossible, But Here’s What It Might Look Like

September 26, 2022

Decarbonizing the United States by the year 2050, as many policymakers advocate and a strong majority of Americans support, would likely be the most challenging infrastructure overhaul in the history of our country. Frankly, the odds are heavily stacked against it happening.

Though many support the idea in abstract, they may not necessarily grasp what such an energy transition would entail in practice. The International Energy Agency (IEA) and researchers from Arizona State University recently spelled it out in detail. Here is a summary of what a carbon-free United States might look like in 2050:

  • The grid will be producing and delivering four times the electricity we use today, 70% through wind and solar, with the rest coming from other carbon-free sources like nuclear, geothermal, and hydropower. “One-third of output will go to traditional residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Another third will go to charging vehicle batteries, while the remainder will power immense fuel synthesis industries that do not exist today.”
  • We will need 150 billion gallons per year of biofuels for agriculture, mining, construction, aviation, marine transport, and the military – about ten times what is produced today. Biofuels will completely displace oil. Some biofuels could be replaced with clean hydrogen if the technology matures and scales.
  • Railways and buses must all be electrified.
  • Long-haul trucking will have to be conducted on electrified roads that charge trucks’ batteries while driving. If not, then another ~30 billion gallons of biofuels will be needed each year.
  • 90 – 100% of personal vehicles must be electric. Chargers must be installed at every residence.
  • At least 50% of heating demand must be supplied by heat pumps.

How much will all of this cost?

“The annual cost of decarbonization is at most on the order of 1% of GDP. This cost is the equivalent of having suffered a mild recession with one year of slow economic growth,” the ASU researchers estimate.

The IEA offers a more rosy assessment.

“Total annual energy investment surges to USD 5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, adding an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. The jump in private and government spending creates millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4% higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.”

The simple fact is that nobody knows how much the energy transition will cost. We just know that making it happen will take unprecedented buy-in from policymakers, citizens, and stakeholders.

“Tripling U.S. electricity production, developing one, possibly two new fuel industries, and deploying the equipment that uses that energy in only 30 years will require an integrated and predictable regulatory and policy regime—including land use, environmental impacts, rights-of-way, and environmental justice—that reassures investors and consumers. We cannot predict technological progress and innovation, nor changes in energy usage, thirty years in advance. Therefore, policy must focus on the quantitative outcome, zero net fossil carbon emissions, while maximizing flexibility in achieving that outcome,” the ASU researchers conclude.

This article was originally published by RealClearScience and made available via RealClearWire.

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