Decarbonizing economy requires lot more electricity

Big ramp-ups in solar, wind power are needed

THE LAST SEVERAL WEEKS have brought into sharp focus the urgency of climate action. From 16-year-old Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic to deliver a dramatic plea at the UN, to debates on Beacon Hill over what kind of energy and how much of it we need to meet regional compacts, there is broad consensus that we need to decarbonize our economy. But how? Is decarbonization by 2050 even possible? If so, are we doing enough to get there?

These are questions my colleagues and I sought to answer in a recent report. What we found was encouraging—and in some ways surprising.

Perhaps the most important finding is actually a bit counterintuitive. To slash emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, our report found that demand for electricity will actually need to grow to roughly twice its current levels.

Now, you might be thinking: to reverse the effects of climate change we need to … increase the amount of electricity we use? How does that make sense?

Put simply, decarbonizing our economy will require us to electrify two of its biggest sectors—transportation and buildings—which currently use fossil fuels and are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions in Massachusetts.

Even after we assumed relatively aggressive progress on energy efficiency, there was no way around it: We will need to use about twice as much electricity as we use today.

But even if we replace gas guzzling cars with electric vehicles and furnaces in our buildings with heat pumps and other technologies, the obvious question is: Where will all this electricity will come from?

Indeed, our study found that we will need to replace almost all of our coal- and gas-fired power plants in the region with a new set of emission-free resources.

Given the resource potential we have in New England, much of the energy will almost certainly come from two sources: solar photovoltaic and wind energy plants, primarily located offshore.

From what we can reliably project today, neither solar nor wind has a clear cost advantage over the other in the long run. We need both. Also, an all-of-the-above energy portfolio leaves us less vulnerable to being unable to match the natural fluctuations of demand and unpredictable weather.

Regionally, we have been making progress by increasing the amount of wind and solar capacity that the six New England states add every year. But the levels of deployment now on the horizon fall far short of what we need to address the dual challenge of cleaning up and doubling the supply of power over the coming three decades.

How short? Over the past decade, excluding rooftop and small solar, we have been adding about 280 megawatts of capacity from renewable sources in the region, on average, every year. Looking forward, we are poised to add approximately 830 megawatts per year through various programs and procurements over the coming decade. This increase means that, on average, we’re on track for about a 10 percent increase in renewable capacity additions per year from what we added historically. That’s pretty good.

But to achieve the 2050 targets, New England will need to accelerate renewable energy resource additions so that we add between 3.5 and 6.6 gigawatts per year between 2021 and 2050, including 2-to-5 gigawatts of solar and 2-to-3 gigawatts of wind. In other words, the region will need to add four to eight times as much renewable capacity every year as currently projected for the next decade.

Since Massachusetts represents a little less than half of the electricity demand in New England, an equivalent portion of this increase is needed to meet the future electricity needs of the Commonwealth. And achieving those numbers will only allow us to meet the existing climate obligations; there are many legislative proposals being discussed that could require us to accelerate the renewable energy transition.

In short, while we have been increasing the pace—procuring offshore wind, adjusting incentives for solar and solar farms—we really do need to keep our foot on the accelerator. If we do, there is a chance to build a stable and sustainable regional clean energy industry, growing it by about 9 percent per year until we have largely eliminated greenhouse gas emissions, and after that largely focusing on replacing aging solar panels and wind farms.

What happens if we don’t? New England won’t be able to decarbonize by 2050, or we will need to ramp up faster and higher over a shorter time span in the future, requiring annual installation of clean energy that is far higher than a sustainable regional clean energy industry can support in the long run. The smarter, more cost effective choice is to ramp up now.

Are we doing enough? No. But while the challenge of accelerating the pace with which we add renewables sounds daunting, such ramp-ups are not unprecedented.

Meet the Author

Jürgen Weiss

Economist/Principal, Brattle Group
We have been growing this industry at about the pace needed, and globally the wind and solar industries have been growing at 2-3 times this rate for the past two decades. So if we stay focused on growing rather than stabilizing this new industry, we still have a window for a relatively orderly transition to replace our current energy industry with the new, long-term and sustainable energy industry we need in the state and the region.

Jürgen Weiss is an energy and industrial organization economist and a principal at the Brattle Group.