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Climate Change / Clean Energy

We still need breakthroughs to clean the electricity grid

A new study of California’s climate targets concludes they can be met—but it’s going to take some deep investments and real innovation.

Apr 25, 2019
An image of wind turbines
  • Ernie Moniz's energy think tank finds California could achieve its ambitious emissions targets, but it's going to take steep investments, real innovation, and a lot of natural gas.

California’s plans to achieve zero-carbon electricity by midcentury will require developing breakthrough innovations and transforming every sector of the state’s economy.

That’s the central finding of a forthcoming report by the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), evaluating the technologies that could be required to pull off the state’s ambitious climate policies. California’s laws require cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from the entire economy to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and creating a carbon-free electricity system by 2045. In addition, an executive order signed by former governor Jerry Brown last year committed the state to cutting total emissions by 80% by 2050.

The report by EFI, the think tank founded by former US secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, does conclude that all this can be accomplished. But it underscores just how big a job California, and other states and nations, will face as they work to decarbonize. Notably, the state of Washington passed a law this week requiring a carbon-free electricity system by 2045, while Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC, have enacted similar laws. A number of other states have bills pending.

Even achieving California’s 2030 goals is likely to require “incremental innovation,” cutting the costs and improving the capabilities of energy storage, carbon capture, and carbon-neutral renewable fuels, says Alex Kizer, EFI’s director of strategic research. But pulling off what the state hopes to achieve by midcentury could require technological leaps in long-duration storage, clean cement, offshore wind, hydrogen fuel, and other areas.

“To get to 80% cuts and beyond, breakthrough innovation is needed,” Kizer says.

One finding that won’t be popular among environmentalists or some policymakers in California (who will note that five of the report’s 11 sponsors have the word “gas” in their name) is that adding carbon-capture systems to the state’s natural-gas plants could achieve some of the deepest emissions reductions in the electricity sector. Specifically, those cuts could add up to 17.7 megatons in 2030, compared with 11 megatons for renewable plants coupled with 5- or 10-hour storage systems, which would likely mean big banks of lithium-ion batteries.

Critics argue that embracing carbon capture will lock in an ongoing reliance on fossil fuels—and all the environmental damage that comes with producing them. But the report notes that natural-gas generation will likely continue to play a key role because it’s cheap and steady, which will be crucial features for a grid operating with increasing levels of highly variable solar and wind generation.

Other areas that could deliver significant emissions cuts include fuel economy standards and low-carbon fuels in the transportation sector; carbon capture and shifts to hydrogen fuel in industry; energy efficiency and electrification in the building sector; and converting livestock manure into renewable fuels in agriculture.