Story at a glance

  • Some of the actions that offer a more sustainable and inexpensive energy system include increasing net-zero vehicle sales by 50 percent, eliminating most electricity generate
  • “The decarbonization of the U.S. energy system is fundamentally an infrastructure transformation,” a study author said.

Creating a more sustainable energy system tends to be synonymous with extra expense to keep carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. 

A new study, published in AGU Advances, bucks this assumption, positing that with the right decarbonization scenarios, the U.S could reach net-zero or net-negative carbon emissions by 2050 at the lowest possible cost. 

The eight scenarios researchers modeled compared different renewable energy systems with the current energy system the U.S. operates on today. This includes observing a low-cost carbon-neutral scenario along with renewable technology pathways meant to decarbonize U.S. energy infrastructure.

All hypothetical energy scenarios were designed to be carbon neutral or carbon negative, meaning using this form of energy would not release any further emissions and actively remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere while operating.

To evaluate the systems’ abilities to match the demand of current utilities, researchers created two models that display the interactions between variables like electricity generation and the optimal decarbonization across each system.

The results indicate that a combination of electricity generated by these scenarios could match the current amount of energy demanded in traditional systems. 

Specifically, in the lowest-cost pathways, roughly 90 percent of the electricity came from solar and wind sources and would only cost roughly 0.6 percent of U.S. GDP — amounting to a net cost of roughly $1 per person.

“We were pleasantly surprised that the cost of the transformation is lower now than in similar studies we did five years ago, even though this achieves much more ambitious carbon reduction,” said Margaret Torn, a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab scientist and one of the study’s authors. “The main reason is that the cost of wind and solar power and batteries for electric vehicles have declined faster than expected.”

Costs associated with renewable energy system operations rose when taking into account finite resources needed, including land requirements. 

Using more levels of electric fuels and carbon capture technology, an estimated 500 million metric tons of carbon could be removed from the atmosphere per year, making the economy net negative on carbon. 

Some of the actions that offer a more sustainable and inexpensive energy system include increasing net-zero vehicle sales by 50 percent, eliminating most electricity generated from coal and developing more solar and wind farms by about 3.5 times the current rate. 

“The decarbonization of the U.S. energy system is fundamentally an infrastructure transformation,” Torn added. “It means that by 2050 we need to build many gigawatts of wind and solar power plants, new transmission lines, a fleet of electric cars and light trucks, millions of heat pumps to replace conventional furnaces and water heaters, and more energy-efficient buildings – while continuing to research and innovate new technologies.”

Notably, researchers also found that the reliability of these systems is contingent on the technologies developed to balance the yearly supply and demand of sustainable energy.

This data comes as President Biden is slated to allocate trillions to supporting sustainable infrastructure and create a clean energy economy by 2050. 

Major institutions appear to be shifting in this direction as well; Volvo recently joined other automakers in committing to phasing out its gas-powered vehicle line and devoting its manufacturing to electric vehicles. 

The American Petroleum Institute is also rumored to voice support for a tax on carbon-emitting entities, a big departure for the largest U.S. oil lobby.

Published on Mar 04, 2021