March 26, 2023


Much of the U.S. has been hot this summer, and the intensity of the heatwave may be due in part to rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In response, 88% of our air conditioner users have been cranking up. To meet the ensuing growth in demand for electricity, generators have been burning more natural gas, coal and other things, emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The key to breaking out of this doom cycle is to move to a power generation system that is less reliant on burning substances. So how do we do this?

Overall, 38% of the electricity generated in the U.S. last year at a utility, industrial or commercial scale (that is, excluding residential solar panels) was produced in ways that do not directly generate CO2 emissions, up from 30% 10 years earlier. some time. This does not include electricity produced from wood and other biomass, because while some people describe the entire process of growing and burning it as carbon neutral, at least for wood, the evidence does not seem to support this.

Due to a major shift in power generation from high-emitting coal to moderately emitting natural gas, the industry’s CO2 emissions have fallen even more than the statistics above, down 29% since 2011 and 36% since their all-time high in 2011 2007 year. But with coal accounting for 22% of U.S. electricity generation in 2021, future CO2 reductions will increasingly come from replacing gas-fired power plants with zero-emission sources—not to mention the methane in natural gas, which when it waters wells, A leak from a pipeline or storage facility, a potent but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas.

Some states are large net importers of electricity, and in 2019 Massachusetts and Delaware generated most of their electricity from other states, while others were net exporters, so the map does not always reflect the sources of electricity consumption in each state. Still, for most people, that’s still within the approximate range, and the mismatch is probably less important when comparing the generation mix over time. Thirty-seven states have seen their share of non-carbon-emitting electricity generation rise since 2011, with some states enjoying large gains. But the energy transition has reversed in a handful of states, mostly on the West Coast and Northeast.

The Pacific Northwest’s setback may be a fluke, as Idaho, Oregon, and Washington get most of their power from hydroelectric dams, and 2011 was a very wet year, resulting in very high hydroelectric production, and 2021 Slightly below average. Declining hydropower in California is also an issue, but considering that 2021 hydropower production will be less than half the 1990-2011 average, and only two of the past decade have been above that average, this Probably not so lucky. Ongoing drought and dwindling snow cover set the state’s energy transition backwards, as did the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in 2013.

Still, California is clearly making the transition, with utility-scale solar and wind accounting for more than a quarter of the state’s electricity generation by 2021, and large battery packs now beginning to ease the shift from plenty to no solar at night, This will keep the share of solar energy rising. That’s not the case in the Northeast, where nuclear power plant shutdowns in Massachusetts and New York and a natural gas boom in Pennsylvania have made the region more reliant on fossil-fuel power generation than it was a decade ago, and wind and solar have gone so far as to make only modest progress.

In a large report on “The Future of Energy Storage,” released in May, researchers at the MIT Energy Initiative estimated that if carbon dioxide emissions were not capped, the Northeast (which they define as New England and New York) would have By 2050, the emissions per kilowatt of electricity generation will be even higher than they are today. This is in stark contrast to the other two U.S. electricity markets studied in the report, where CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour are projected to drop by 59% in the Southeast and by 78% in Texas by 2050—again, in These emissions are prevented without any restrictive policies or otherwise.

With most Northeastern states already setting ambitious emissions reduction targets, and the climate bill, also known as the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden this month, non-carbon energy will be pushed even further. But the modelling results suggest that the Northeast faces unique challenges in decarbonizing, mainly because, as MIT economist Richard Schmalensee explained in a podcast interview that briefly summarizes the report:

• its climate is not suitable for solar energy,

• its population density makes it difficult to increase onshore wind power, and

• It is difficult for nuclear power plants to compete in their electricity market.

The Southeast, by contrast, has plenty of sunshine, sparse population, and vertically integrated utilities that can keep nuclear plants running (and even build expensive new ones) if needed. Texas is Texas, with vast open spaces perfect for solar and wind power.

That’s fortuitous, given that Southeast states and Texas may not be enacting emissions-free electricity anytime soon. As my Bloomberg colleague Liam Denning and energy expert Jeff Davis have shown recently through a calculation of renewable energy potential by congressional districts, places that tend to elect Republicans also tend to be well suited for wind and / or solar power generation and battery storage. As I discovered last month, many red states also have a high percentage of all-electric households, which will ease the expected transition away from natural gas as a heating and cooking fuel. Like it or not, much of red America seems destined to be carbon-free or at least light-carbon.

Blue America, at least its Northeast chapter, is already relatively low-carbon. The region has largely stopped burning coal for power generation, has a lot of its own hydroelectric power, and has access to more areas near Canada, and its residents are more likely than those in other areas to live in apartments, take public transportation and work in non-energy-intensive ways industry. Seven of the 10 states with the lowest per capita energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, the most recent year for which the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates are available, were in the Northeast.

Now, however, comes the hard part. After decades of falling demand, the Northeast will need more electricity to power electric vehicles and replace oil and gas stoves with heat pumps. Assuming it will be a challenge under any circumstances, it could be especially difficult if the region tries to do so without natural gas continuing to function – which is the current plan in New York, which the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 calls for 100% emission-free electricity by 2040. According to the MIT study, under a zero-emissions scenario, electricity prices in the Northeast would be nearly twice as high by 2050 as in a scenario that capped emissions at 5 grams of carbon dioxide per kWh (for illustration, the 2020 U.S. CO2 emissions from the power sector are around 386 g/kWh). Under the zero-emission scenario, prices in the Northeast would also be much higher than in other regions studied.

Yes, these are just the results of an economic modeling exercise, relying on a bunch of assumptions that may not work out. Still, it’s odd to think that it might be easier to be a climate hawk in Georgia or Texas than in Massachusetts or New York over the next few decades.

More opinions from other Bloomberg writers:

Energy-rich Texas should love climate bill: Liam Denning

Climate bill alone won’t halve emissions by 2030: Eduardo Porter

U.S. green energy surprisingly Republican: Denning and Davis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a columnist for Bloomberg, covering business. He was the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review and has written for Time, Fortune, and The American Banker. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Market.

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