A recent report claims solar and wind power innovations combined with the natural gas fracking boom and the COVID-19 pandemic to push the United States closer to its goal of zero carbon emissions than anyone thought possible.
The report is from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and is titled, “Halfway to Zero,” referring to a 2005 forecast by the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). Back then, the EIA estimated that energy sector carbon dioxide would reach 3,000 million metric tons by 2020. Surprisingly, the number is actually less than half that, coming in at 1,456 million metric tons. The Biden administration’s goal is a zero carbon grid in the next 15 years. The report goes on to outline how the country’s power sector has already reached the halfway point to zero emissions in just 15 years.
The report’s authors are quick to note, however, that positive news about how quickly that reduction took place is offset by several roadblocks in the way of reaching the ultimate goal so quickly. While the technological solutions needed to reach zero emissions are ready to deploy thanks to lower solar, wind and battery costs than expected, the gains already reached from moving away from coal will be difficult to replicate.
One impediment the report points out involves fracking and shale natural gas. The authors note the huge production of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the subsequent use of natural gas rather than coal to fuel turbines helped drastically cut carbon emissions since 2005. But once that windfall has been calculated into the totals, it can’t be duplicated unless gas carbon emissions can be captured and permanently stored affordably. They argue that the switch from coal to natural gas has already been done and can’t yield the same benefits toward lower numbers in the future.
Electricity demand in the U.S. was 24 percent lower in 2020 than what the EIA projected back in 2005 and renewables contributed 79 percent more to the power grid than that forecast. The drop in electricity demand and carbon emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic were major factors in lower net numbers but the report notes a rebound in those emissions is likely now that the economy has reopened.
The total decline in CO2 grid emissions from 2005 to 2019 was 33 percent. The report says achieving a carbon-free grid over the next 15 years will take 1,100 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity and a renewable grid averaging about double what it was able to add in 2020.