U.S. Power Sector is Halfway to Zero Carbon Emissions

The researchers also found that changes over the last 15 years had numerous other economic and environmental benefits. For example, total electric bills for consumers were 18% lower in 2020 than previously projected by EIA, for a total savings of $86 billion per year.

According to the study, reduced sulfur and nitrogen emissions led to lower health impacts, such as respiratory disease, with premature deaths falling from 38,000 to 3,100 per year. “Compared to the business-as-usual projection, not only did the nation significantly reduce its carbon footprint, but it did so while also reducing total energy bills and health burdens,” said co-author and Berkeley Lab scientist Dev Millstein.

The study also found that while employment patterns shifted along with changes in the power sector, electricity supply is supporting 200,000 more jobs than might have been the case under the earlier projection.

Looking Forward
While a look back shows that dramatic changes in emissions are possible over a 15-year span, the study points out that this does not guarantee the next 15 years will see similar progress.

Given advancements in wind, solar, and battery technologies, these resources are likely to play important near-term roles in further power-sector decarbonization. According to the study, a large share of the capacity needed to approach a zero-carbon power-sector target is already in the development pipeline: about 660 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar have requested transmission access, more than half of what might be required to approach a zero-carbon power-sector target. Not all proposed projects will be built, but the scale indicates interest in development.

Wiser points out there are significant infrastructure requirements related to scaling up renewable energy. The power sector will have to ensure electricity delivery, reliability, and resilience; build new transmission infrastructure; change planning and grid operations; revise siting processes; and focus attention on impacted workers and communities.

Another major challenge is how to meet the last portion of demand, to ensure a reliable power supply when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. The study concludes that further research, development, and demonstration is needed for the numerous technologies that can fill this gap, such as longer-duration energy storage, hydrogen or synthetic fuels, bioenergy, fossil or biomass generation with carbon capture, nuclear energy, geothermal energy, and solar-thermal with storage.

“As the country maps out a plan for further decarbonization, experience from the past 15 years offers two central lessons,” said Wiser. “First, policy and technology advancement are imperative to achieving significant emissions reductions. Second, our ability to predict the future is limited, and so it will be crucial to adapt as we gain policy experience and as technologies advance in unexpected ways.”