The United States has the technology to end its reliance on coal, repower the nation with renewable energy, and slash its carbon dioxide emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050 – one of President Obama's goals. It just has to stop dragging its feet and put that technology to use.
That's the crux of a study released today by the European Renewable Energy Council and Greenpeace. It offers a road map for developing energy independence and a low-carbon, fossil fuel-free economy based on three simple principles:
No. 1: Stop wasting energy.
No. 2: Drop coal like the dirty power source it is and repower the nation with renewable energy, using natural gas as a bridge to that future.
No. 3: Start writing strong policies based on science.
The coal industry will be quick to point out that the up-front cost of phasing out coal and repowering the nation with renewable energy will be higher than continuing businesses as usual.
However, the study notes that the investment quickly pays off. By 2030, following the renewable energy-based Energy [R]evolution Scenario would save the nation half what it would have spent if it continued to pump money into the coal industry, and it would create more jobs in the process.
One reason for the long-term cost of coal – and another reason to start shifting policies and attitudes toward renewables now – is the aging of the U.S. coal plant fleet. The average coal-fired power plant in the United States right now is 44 years old. About half of all coal plants are retired by age 50, and 92 percent are retired by age 60, according to analysis by Energy Velocity.
Continuing to rely on coal as those plants deteriorate will require either building new power plants, which will pollute for another 60 years, or patching up old plants as they break down and fall out of compliance with strengthening environmental regulations. New Hampshire's Merrimack Station power plant is a prime example. PSNH won a permit this week to begin installing mercury scrubbers in the 41-year-old plant at a cost of $457 million – and those scrubbers might not keep the plant in compliance for long.
With so many power plants hitting retirement in the next 10 years, utilities will soon have to make the choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy. To help them make that decision, the German Aerospace Center, which conducted the Energy [R]evolution study, crunched the fuel costs of both scenarios over time and determined:
"The additional costs for coal fuel from today until the year 2030 would be as high as $2.3 trillion under the reference scenario [business as usual, as estimated by the IEA]. This savings alone would cover the entire investment in renewable and cogeneration capacity required to implement the Energy [R]evolution Scenario. ... Because renewable energy has no fuel costs, the total fuel cost savings in the Energy [R]evolution Scenario is nearly $2.1 trillion."
Which route the country's investors, states and utilities choose will depend on policy. A carbon cap with emissions trading will spur private investments in renewable energy. Plowing money into coal-supporting proposals, such as developing carbon capture and sequestration, will encourage the continued burning of coal.
The easiest and quickest step toward a more sustainable future is being smarter about the way people and businesses use energy.
The Energy [R]evolution Scenario estimates that cutting energy use with such actions as improving insulation in homes and buildings, replacing old appliances with energy efficient ones, and using technology and incentives to track and stop energy waste could cut U.S. energy demand by about 24 percent by 2050, compared to an expected increase of 40 percent by 2050 if nothing changes.
For example, if the federal government expanded its home weatherization program nationwide, it could cut energy use sucked up by home heating and cooling systems by 30 percent – and save $1.50 for every $1 invested, according to the study.
Expanding public transit and scrapping low-gas-mileage vehicles for electrics and plug-in hybrids could cut the transportation sector's energy demands by 40 percent by mid-century.
The second part of the plan, repowering with renewables, will take several years to build up, which is why the study suggests phasing out coal, oil and nuclear, while keeping natural gas as the primary bridge to the future.
There's no question that the country has the potential to switch to renewable energy. Five states – the Dakotas, Kansas, Montana and Texas – have enough wind energy potential to power the entire country. Hypothetically, solar thermal plants covering 9 percent of Nevada could do the same thing. The study suggests that if the U.S. invests $2.8 trillion between now and 2030: Wind power could grow from just over 20 gigawatts to nearly 400 GW by 2050; solar photovoltaic power could be boosted to over 500 GW; geothermal, wave and biomass capacity could near 300 GW.
A shift toward decentralized power, improved battery and storage capacity, and cogeneration would make electricity as efficient as possible, the study suggests. Decentralized power is generated locally and distributed using local networks rather than the high voltage transmission systems. In cogeneration, waste heat from power plants is piped into nearby buildings.
"All we need to kick-start this plan is bold energy policy from world leaders," said Sven Teske, Greenpeace International's senior energy expert and a co-author of the Energy [R]evolution Scenario.
Here are the actions the study's authors recommend for the United States:
- Launch a national cap-and-trade program capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the levels recommended by science.
- End all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
- Set mandatory efficiency standards for all appliances, buildings and vehicles.
- Set mandatory targets for renewable energy generation.
- Reform the electricity markets by guaranteeing renewable power has access to the grid.
- Provide defined and stable returns for investors, such as feed-in tariffs.
- Implement consumer transparency measures to provide more information about the energy they use and the impact it has.
- Increase funding for research and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Under the Energy [R]evolution Scenario's recommendations, the annual CO2 emissions per person in the United States would drop from about 18.6 tons now to 2.1 tons by 2050.
The plan is bold, but its interim goal of cutting emissions 12 percent below 1990 level by 2020 still falls short of the IPCC's recommendation that the industrialized world cut its emissions at least 25 percent by 2020. The IPCC made that recommendation two years ago, before it had the latest scientific evidence showing that the rate of global warming is increasing faster than previously believed.
Greenpeace supports the IPCC's goal, said Steven Biel, head of the group's U.S. Global Warming Campaign. But he notes that after a decade of delay in Washington, "It's going to take some time to get the U.S. back on line."
Other countries are proving that it can be done. Today, Sweden strengthened its 2020 goal. It initially planned to cut emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 – now it's shooting for a 40 percent cut. It also plans for half of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, and for its vehicles to be fossil-fuel free by 2030.
As the study points, out:
"The climate crisis demands nothing short of an energy revolution."