Ask a Scientist: Two Dozen States Can Meet 100 Percent of Electricity Demand with Renewables by 2035

May 12, 2022 | 10:00 am
Source: Marcia Cassidy Communications
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Since its founding in 2017, the US Climate Alliance—a coalition of states committed to meeting the goals of the Paris climate accord—has grown to 24 states and one US territory. All told, they represent 56 percent of the US population, generate 62 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and are responsible for 43 percent of the country’s annual carbon emissions.

Nearly all of the alliance members have a renewable electricity standard (RES), which requires utilities in their jurisdiction to increase their use of renewable energy to a particular percentage by a specific year. Four alliance states—California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington—plan to achieve 100-percent renewable electricity by 2045, and another seven states plus the alliance’s one territory—Puerto Rico—have a 2050 target.

To help avoid the worst possible consequences of climate change, however, the alliance states need to reach that 100-percent objective much more quickly. Fortunately, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), they all have the technical ability to meet 100 percent of their electricity demand by as early as 2035.

“US Climate Alliance members are well-positioned to drive decarbonization efforts,” says Paula García, a senior UCS energy analyst and the report’s lead author. “While that is not a replacement for national and international leadership, we are encouraged by our findings about the impact that state-level action alone can have on reducing carbon pollution.”

To produce the report, García led a team of UCS staff members, who were joined by experts from the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, the Massachusetts-based GreenRoots, and the Minnesota-based COPAL MN, which stands for Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina, or Communities Organizing Latino Power and Action. I interviewed her shortly after they released On the Road to 100-Percent Renewables. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: What prompted you and your team to conduct this study now?

PG: UCS and our partners collaborated to assess how leadership states can address climate change by reducing heat-trapping emissions in key sectors of their economies as well as by considering the impacts of different energy choices. We also evaluated the potential to accelerate the use of renewable energy dramatically through state-level renewable electricity standards, which have been major drivers of clean energy in recent decades. In addition, we worked with Greenlink Analytics, an energy research organization, to figure out how these standards directly impact people’s lives in terms of public health, jobs and energy costs.

EN: What were your top findings?

PG: Using an electric sector model from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we examined how US Climate Alliance states could meet 100 percent of their electricity needs by 2035 by strengthening their renewable electricity standard (RES). 

We found that states have technically feasible and highly beneficial ways to achieve 100-percent renewable energy. In our “100-percent RES” scenario, coal generation in alliance state essentially disappears by 2040. From 2020 to 2040, solar generation in these states jumps nearly ninefold and wind generation more than sevenfold.

Our analysis also demonstrates renewables’ power. The shift from fossil fuels in the 100-percent RES scenario reduces the amount of toxic power plant air pollution much more than what we called a “no-new-policy,” or business-as-usual, scenario. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power plants in alliance states drop 88 percent and 77 percent respectively by 2040. Under the no-new-policy scenario, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides decline only by 27 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

The benefits of dramatically cutting power plant pollution are significant. Compared with the no-new-policy scenario, it prevents 6,000 to 13,000 premature deaths and more than 140,000 cases of exacerbated asthma in alliance states by 2040. Residents in those states also would lose 700,000 fewer workdays to illness and collectively save nearly $280 billion in health care costs.

Just as important, cleaning up the power grid also lowers carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing fossil fuel use under the 100-percent RES policy cuts alliance state power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 58 percent below 2020 levels by 2040. Under current policies and plans, carbon dioxide emissions would decline by only 12 percent.

EN: Besides the considerable public health benefits from states weaning themselves off fossil fuel-generated electricity, you found that it would boost local economies. What job opportunities would this clean energy transition create? And what about fossil fuel-dependent workers and communities?

PG: Accelerating the deployment of renewable energy creates new opportunities in solar-array and wind-facility installation, which, for example, increases the demand for electricians, pipefitters and welders. It also creates opportunities in component manufacturing, sales, financing and maintenance for a range of renewable energy technologies.

We conducted a detailed analysis of three alliance member states—Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota—to further highlight the public health and economic benefits of moving toward 100- percent renewable energy. In the three states, we found that nearly 200,000 more workers would be hired to install new generating capacity—overwhelmingly in renewable energy—under the 100-percent RES scenario than in the no-new-policy scenario. For example, Minnesota would gain more than 160,000 additional job-years—meaning more than 40,000 jobs—by 2040, which would total $4.9 billion in additional labor income over the next two decades.

As far as workers and communities that are currently dependent on the fossil fuel-based electric utilities, ramping up renewables would lead to job losses. That said, we expect the additional job growth in the 100-percent RES scenario to be considerably greater than the total employment in coal-, gas- and oil-fired power plants in the three states we examined. Still, we are talking about workers’ livelihoods. That is why it is crucial for states to invest in worker and community support when moving beyond fossil fuels—for example, by establishing job training and income support for a specified period of time, which could include wage compensation, extended health care coverage, and continued employer contributions to retirement funds and pension plans.

EN: Besides Louisiana, all of the members of the US Climate Alliance have a renewable electricity standard (RES). Four have a 100-percent-by-2045 target, while eight plan to get there by 2050. Others have goals ranging from 25 percent to 50 percent renewables by a specific year. How are all of these states going to shave as much as 10 to 15 years off their original trajectories to get to 100-percent renewables by 2035?

PG: Our analysis shows that it is technically feasible for alliance states to meet 100 percent of their electricity needs by 2035 if they strengthen their RES. Currently, the states in our analysis meet their electricity needs with a mix of different electricity sources, including fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewables. Our 100-percent RES scenario triggers a significant decline in fossil fuel use. The use of natural gas, which generated 38 percent of US electricity in 2021, certainly would drop, but some utilities would continue to use it to export electricity to non-alliance states.

Although solar and wind power—the dominant renewable technologies—grow substantially under a 100-percent RES, states must pair RESs with policies that address not only electricity consumption but also electricity generation to move away from fossil fuels more quickly and ensure an equitable transition in which all communities enjoy the benefits of a clean energy economy.

EN: Energy prices have gone up dramatically in the last year. In fact, the average residential rate nationally was 8 percent higher in January than it was a year earlier, the biggest annual increase since 2008. Rates in three of the US Climate Alliance states—Hawaii, Illinois and New York—have jumped about 15 percent. And these higher energy prices drive inflation.

Energy experts are predicting that rates will continue to go up to pay for strengthening electric grids against climate change-related disasters and new transmission lines, wind turbines and solar farms to reduce carbon emissions. Ultimately, however, renewables should lower electricity costs, right?

PG: Transitioning to renewable energy is not just one of the most consequential tools to combat climate change, but doing so also would provide a great opportunity to gain control over our energy choices, improve the health of our communities and the planet, create jobs and wealth, and much more.

Moving to renewable energy, along with electrifying vehicles and heating systems, would lower overall energy expenses, which would in turn lower average “energy burden”—the portion of typical household income spent on energy. Energy burden is a particular challenge for many low-income US households. Their national average energy burden for electricity and gas alone is 8.1 percent, compared to an average of 2.3 percent for non-low-income households.

Renewable energy reduces household electricity costs by displacing more expensive electricity generation from fossil fuels, and renewable energy policies, such as the 100-percent RES scenario, can accelerate that change. Electrification can shift energy use for heating from gas or heating oil to electricity, and shift energy use for transportation from gasoline and diesel to electricity. Overall, electrification would reduce energy costs because of the higher efficiency of electric heat pumps and electric vehicles.

Even considering electricity and gas expenses alone, energy burdens in the 100-percent RES scenario is consistently at or below those in the no-new-policy scenario in each alliance state in most or all years. The average energy burden across those states declines from 3.7 percent in 2020 to 3 percent in 2040 under the 100-percent RES scenario. In the no-new-policy scenario, it drops to 3.3 percent in 2040.

EN: Finally, what do states have to do to make sure historically disadvantaged communities that have borne the brunt of pollution benefit from the transition to a clean energy economy?

PG: Our findings show that a transition to renewable energy requires attention to ensure that everyone enjoys the benefits, while simultaneously avoiding the perpetuation of historic inequities in the energy sector. Many communities continue to bear far too large a share of the negative impacts from decades of siting fossil fuel power sector infrastructure within or near their neighborhoods.

Our report spells out a range of policies that complement the renewable electricity standards required to move more quickly away from fossil fuels, cut pollution, and promote equitable outcomes in the transition to renewable energy. More specifically, Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant and low-income communities should have full access to the new jobs, economic development, and entrepreneurship initiatives that accelerated commitments to clean energy will yield. While renewable energy will likely lower costs overall, states need to help low- and moderate-income households gain access to clean energy technologies and reduce their energy burdens. Similarly, workers and communities tied to fossil fuel-generated electricity will need support to move beyond that dependence. And, through it all, frontline communities directly affected by changes in energy policy and practice must have power in the decisionmaking process.