When Will We Be Able to Stop Burning Fossil Fuels to Generate Electricity?

May 1, 2017 | 9:00 am
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Ask a Scientist – May 2017

This month we asked Paula García, an energy analyst in our Climate and Energy Program, to address a question about the prospects of transitioning our nation’s electric power system away from coal and natural gas to low- and no-carbon alternatives. Garcia, who has a master’s degree in sustainable international development, is an expert in renewable energy technology and government policy.

When will we be able to stop burning fossil fuels to generate electricity? – JR Tehachapi, CA

We have the necessary low- and no-carbon technologies to significantly reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, but how long it will take to transform the electricity system largely depends on political will. That means it is difficult to predict.

A number of countries are making great strides. Just last month, the United Kingdom produced electricity for an entire day without burning coal for the first time since its first centralized coal-fueled generator started operating in 1882. Denmark and Germany recently generated nearly all of their electricity for one day with renewable energy, while Portugal was able to accomplish the same feat for four consecutive days. Most of the electricity in Costa Rica and Iceland comes from geothermal, hydro and wind energy. And these examples are just a small sampling demonstrating that the transition to clean energy is happening on a large scale.

The entire world—for the most part—is on board. In December 2015, representatives from 195 nations adopted the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The overarching objective of the parties to the agreement is to drastically reduce global warming emissions by 2050. To do that, we as a global society need to take action in three key areas: 1) increase our efforts in energy efficiency, 2) decarbonize our electricity supply, and 3) convert to electricity most processes that burn fossil fuels, such as heating and transportation (think electric vehicles).

The good news is that with commercial and near-commercial low-carbon technologies such as wind, solar, efficiency and storage, we can get most of the way there. However, countries will need to quickly deploy existing clean technologies and encourage innovative new ones to meet our deep decarbonization goals in an affordable way and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Clean energy is also gaining remarkable momentum in the United States. Wind farms in 41 states can now provide enough electricity to power 20 million households. Solar power has jumped more than 900 percent since 2011. Energy efficiency investments during the last quarter century have eliminated the need for more than 300 large coal plants. All of that activity has meant jobs. More than 2 million people now work in U.S. energy efficiency, solar and wind industries, alone. And last but not least, clean energy protects public health and the environment by dramatically reducing toxic power plant emissions.

States are a key reason for this progress, and UCS’s new “Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking” report found that leadership is even coming from some states one might not expect. Our analysis, based on a dozen metrics covering renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification of the transportation sector, discovered that California leads the way, followed in order by Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Other states also had notable achievements. Kansas, for example, tripled its wind production from 8 percent of its electricity generation to 24 percent over the last four years. Three-fourths of in-state electricity generation now comes from renewable energy in Idaho, South Dakota and Washington. And when it comes to new investments, Wyoming might make you think of coal, but it also tops the list of states building renewable energy per capita and as a percentage of new power plant capacity.

A number of states have ambitious plans to increase the percentage of renewable energy that generates electricity. Hawaii tops that list with a mandate to be fully powered by renewable sources by 2045. California and New York are committed to produce 50 percent of their electricity by 2030. Vermont is shooting for 70 percent by 2030. And 10 states have mandates to cut their global warming emissions 30 percent to 60 percent by 2030 based on 2005 emission levels.

Federal action to promote clean energy, unfortunately, is uncertain at best, just when we need to move as quickly as possible. So state leadership is now more important than ever. While the federal government must be a full partner in this transition, UCS, our supporters, and our allies will continue to encourage states to do more, and work to ensure that the benefits of moving to clean energy are shared by all.

Paula Garcia is an energy analyst in the UCS Climate and Energy Program. She evaluates energy resource- and climate change mitigation- options in the electricity sector and works to advance public understanding of renewable and conventional energy technologies, policies and markets. Ms. Garcia holds a M.A. in sustainable international development from Brandeis University and an industrial engineering degree from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, where she is originally from.

Posted in: Energy

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Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.