Charting the path to zero carbon emissions

Report shines spotlight on Pennsylvania

CLIMATE POLICY is in a holding pattern. The D.C. Circuit court is deliberating on the future of EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” regulation of carbon pollution from existing power plants. Stakeholders in the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are pondering emission cap targets for 2020 through 2030 that may do anything from hold steady at 2020 levels to drop 5 percent each year—with no word yet on when or how a decision will be made. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent Executive Order requires specific, measurable actions to comply with the Commonwealth’s climate law, but not until August 2017. And the outcome of this historically divisive presidential race promises a future for US climate policy that may range from taking a wrecking ball to all Environmental Protection Agency offices to making “solving the climate crisis a top national priority.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network released a report this week that looks beyond this morass to a zero-carbon future. As one of the authors of the study—together with Synapse Energy Economics and EQ Research—I can report that it is both challenging and rewarding to see past today’s policy hurdles and catch a glimpse of the energy sector that must be in place in 2050 if we hope to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. This report shines a spotlight on Pennsylvania—the state with the third greatest carbon emissions after Texas and California—and asks: What is a realistic path forward to achieve zero carbon emissions from energy consumption by 2050? (Note that for Pennsylvania this is different from achieving zero emissions from energy production. Both goals are important, but the policy mechanisms needed to achieve these goals are distinct.)

The answer is simple enough: Efficiency, electrification, and renewables.

The first step to attain zero emissions in 2050 for Pennsylvania is to adopt Massachusetts’ energy efficiency targets. Massachusetts has some of the most ambitious goals for energy conservation in the nation and serves as a role model for other states when mapping out a path to decarbonization.

The next step is electrification of energy uses that are not electric today. For Pennsylvania, this means most space heating, quite a lot of water heating and commercial uses, a number of industrial processes, and almost all transportation. This is the part of achieving a zero carbon future that will require the most innovation, creativity, and determination. Total electrification of all energy uses would also raise special challenges if Pennsylvania were to undertake it while its neighboring states kept the status quo. (For example, how would Pennsylvania’s 100 percent electric vehicle fleet “fuel” up when driving outside of the state’s boundaries?) A future in which all of the states work together to end carbon pollution will be both more achievable and more affordable.

The final step is to power all of the current uses of electricity—lights, electronics, refrigeration—and new uses of electricity—transportation, space and water heating, commercial and industrial—with 100 percent renewable energy. The report focuses on building up the renewable resources that are well-known and already competitive today: onshore wind and utility-scale solar (that is, large groupings of panels). Even after all of the efficiency measures, total electrification means that the use of electricity triples in Pennsylvania from today to 2050. That’s quite a boon to electric generators and utilities who have sometimes worried about renewables causing a “death spiral” that would bankrupt the electric industry.

Meet the Author

Liz Stanton

Principal economist, Liz Stanton Consulting, Arlington
Efficiency, electrification, and renewables. That’s the secret formula for a zero-carbon future. When US climate policy finds its path forward—and I have no doubt that it will (although I do sometimes doubt when it will)—those three steps will take us where we need to go. In the meantime, if we don’t have climate action, let’s at least have climate planning and call for a zero-carbon roadmap for every state.

Elizabeth A. Stanton is principal economist at Liz Stanton Consulting in Arlington.