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Robert Rapier

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Can Biden Decarbonize The U.S. Power Sector In 15 Years?

Last week’s article focused on the nine key elements of Joe Biden’s plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. Today, I want to focus more narrowly on Biden’s goal to decarbonize the U.S. power sector by 2035.

Although some of the “big picture” elements are laid out on Biden’s website, many of the details are lacking. However, Biden has discussed some of those details in campaign speeches.

In a July campaign speech in Delaware, Biden discussed decarbonizing the transportation sector. He said his administration would “build and install a network of 500,000 charging stations along our existing and new highways” so electric vehicles (EVs) can displace gasoline. He also mentioned plans to offer cash rebates to trade in older vehicles. This is notable because it would actually boost the demands on the power sector, which will increase the challenges of decarbonizing the sector.

He spoke about retrofitting lighting with LED systems to save energy, and on energy efficiency:

“We’re going to offer cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade energy inefficient appliances and windows, improvements that will cut their monthly energy bills and, over time, save them thousands of dollars a year. We’re going to make a major investment to build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes.”

Related: Lower Oil Production Hits Pipeline Operators Hard Energy efficiency will help, but in 2019 the U.S. still obtained 63% of its electricity from fossil fuels. Clearly a lot of new carbon-free generation will be required. Biden didn’t mention how this would be achieved in this speech, other than to say that we have to get work right away, that we need to improve and innovate new technologies, and that we know how to do it.

He didn’t mention nuclear power or carbon sequestration in this speech, but his website does mention them among four specific goals designed to decarbonize the power sector. Biden’s plan calls for:

  1.   Grid-scale storage at one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries.
  2.   Small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today’s reactors.
  3.   Using renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen at the same cost as that from shale gas.
  4.   Capturing carbon dioxide from power plant exhausts followed by sequestering it deep underground or using it to make alternative products.

How feasible is the objective of completely decarbonizing the power sector by 2035? A recent report by Wood Mackenzie mentioned that the U.S. is currently on a path that would achieve 87% clean energy in the U.S. power grid by 2050. In a press release, Wood Mackenzie noted that:

“A Biden win will see capital investments in renewable energy and energy storage assets top $2.2 trillion through 2035. Utility-scale solar demand will soar to over 100 [gigawatt] GW/yr, while battery storage capacity will surpass 400 GW – nearly 40% of the total installed power generating capacity of the U.S. in 2020. Coal-fired generation will exit the market in its entirety.”

The report highlighted the magnitude of the challenge this goal would entail. The current U.S. solar module supply is about 4.7 GW, but demand would grow to over 100 GW per year under Biden’s plan. The potential demand for batteries would grow from the current 46 GWh to 600 GWh per year. Thus, this is a monumental undertaking.

However, it is worth noting that this goal is 15 years away, and there has been tremendous growth in the clean energy sector over the past 15 years. Since 2005, combined power generation from wind and solar power have increased by a factor of 22, to 411 terawatt-hours (TWh) as costs fell dramatically. Battery costs have also plummeted over that time frame.

The power generated last year from coal and natural gas was 1,054 TWh and 1,700 TWh respectively. Wind and solar power need to grow another 156% to equal the power produced by coal in 2019, and another 570% to equal the combined power produced by coal and natural gas. The latter is about equal to the growth rate wind and solar generation have collectively seen over the past 11 years.

Related: China Not Looking To Ban Gasoline Powered Cars Any Time Soon

To maintain that pace over the next 15 years will indeed be a big task requiring a substantial ongoing investment in the sector. Recent history suggests that the target is extremely challenging, but not totally unrealistic.

Some have argued that 100% decarbonization isn’t the right goal. Meredith Fowlie at UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute at Haas has critiqued Biden’s plan, and concluded that 90% reduction should be the realistic target.

Fowlie reasons that “90% carbon-free electricity generation by 2035 is not only feasible but cost-effective at a carbon price of $50/ton”, but the marginal cost of driving power sector GHG emissions to zero would more than double for that last 10%. Fowlie’s thinking is in line with my own:

“The upshot is that decarbonizing the electricity sector by 2035 is doable. Given falling technology costs and rising temperatures, we should be going after deep GHG reductions. But given the relatively high incremental costs and complexities, we should be circumspect about driving power sector emissions all the way to zero.”

By Robert Rapier

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