A 100% Renewable Energy Future is Possible, and We Need It

April 19, 2022 | 9:00 am
A neighborhood of Boulder, CO, featuring colorful homes with solar paneled roofs Dennis Schroeder/NREL/Flickr
Paula Garcia
Senior Bilingual Energy Analyst and Energy Justice Lead

We’re living in a time of high volatility in the price of gas that has hit close to all sectors of our economy. We’re also living in a time plagued with costly ”this is not normal” weather events. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just warned us of the decisive fate that this decade represents to act on climate for us and all the species that we depend on.

And we’re still trying to recover from a pandemic that has made even more clear the disproportionate impacts of air pollution on overburdened communities, making them even more vulnerable to the negative impacts of COVID 19.

A transition to renewable energy is not just one of the most consequential tools at our fingertips to act on climate, but also represents a great opportunity to increase control over our energy choices, improve the health of our communities and the planet, create jobs and wealth, and much more.

But how feasible is this transition? And can this transition benefit us all? 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—together with environmental justice groups COPAL in Minnesota, GreenRoots in Massachusetts, and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition—collaborated on an analysis to look into those questions. On the Road to 100 Percent Renewables examined how two dozen state members of the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA) can meet all of their electricity needs with renewable energy—while decarbonizing other sectors of the economy and ensuring equitable benefits to all communities. Our study also conducted a detailed analysis of three USCA member states—Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota—to further highlight the public health, economic, and energy affordability considerations of moving toward 100 percent renewable energy.

This is what we found:

💯 by 2035 is feasible

States have technically feasible and highly beneficial paths to achieving 100 percent renewable energy.

Using the Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) electricity model from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we examined how USCA states could meet 100 percent of the state’s electricity needs by 2035 through a strengthened renewable electricity standard (RES). This level of ambition resonates with a growing number of states that are already committing to 100 percent renewable or carbon-free energy, along with cities, towns, companies, and institutions. And we’re already seeing the prominent role that renewables are starting to play in our electricity mix. Just last month, wind energy for the first produced more electricity than coal and nuclear together in the United States over the course of a day.

We found that, in our “100% RES” scenario, coal generation essentially disappears by 2040 in USCA states. From 2020 to 2040, solar generation in these states grows nearly ninefold and wind generation more than sevenfold.

In 2040, electricity generation in the USCA states is 73 percent renewable. It’s not 100 percent, because of the difference between consumption and generation: Although the USCA states meet all their own electricity needs with renewables as required by the RES, our modeling allows plants fueled by coal, gas, and nuclear to continue operating—which they do, because the principal US power grids are interconnected across many states, with power shared across state lines.

💯 by 2035 is needed

A transition to 100 percent renewable energy is about more than just technology. I admit that I get mesmerized when I see solar working at small and large scale, and panels only getting better with each generation. I also find it fascinating to learn about bigger, more powerful wind turbines that better harness wind energy on land and in the ocean. But one of the things that I value most about renewables is the countless opportunities that a transition to renewables can bring, including cleaner air, better health, and more jobs.

And our modeling shows renewables’ power. The shift from fossil fuels in the 100% RES scenario reduces the amount of harmful air pollution from power plants much more than in our “No New Policy”/business-as-usual scenario. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from power plants in USCA states fall 88 and 77 percent respectively by 2040, compared with 27 and 18 percent under current policies and plans. This move leads to approximately 6,000 to 13,000 fewer premature deaths, more than 140,000 fewer cases of asthma exacerbation, and 700,000 fewer workdays lost to illness from 2022 to 2040 compared to current policies and plans. The value of the public health benefits totals almost $280 billion over the two decades.

Just as important, cleaning up the power grid can also decrease carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. With the reduction in fossil fuel use in the 100% RES policy, CO2 emissions from power plants in the USCA states are 58 percent below 2020 levels by 2040; the reduction is only 12 percent under current policies and plans.

Our analysis underscores the importance of cleaning the grid as we electrify the transportation and building sectors. Pushing for electrification without a strong focus on decarbonizing the grid—an “Electrification Without Decarbonization” scenario—leads to power plant emissions that are nearly five times higher for SO2, more than three times higher for NOx, and more than twice as high for CO2 by 2040 than in the 100% RES policy; CO2 emissions are higher even than under current policies and plans, by 14 percent.

And there are many more benefits that are needed now more than ever as our economy tries to rebound after the pandemic, including the huge potential for new jobs in the clean energy industry. In Michigan alone, our 100% RES policy creates more than 100,000 additional jobs in the construction or installation of new power capacity, chiefly wind and solar, from 2022 to 2040.

We can do this 💯 transition right

Our findings also show that a transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels requires attention to ensuring that everyone can experience 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 the infrastructure for the nation’s fossil fuel power sector within or near marginalized neighborhoods.

Our On the Road to 100 Percent Renewables analysis spells out a range of policies building on renewable electricity standards required to more quickly move away from fossil fuels, reduce 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, low- and moderate-income households should be particularly supported in accessing clean energy technologies and reducing their energy burdens. Similarly, communities now tied to fossil fuels need support in moving beyond that dependence. And through it all, frontline communities directly affected by changes in energy policy and practice should have power in decision-making processes.

Let’s demand policy action

As I said before, renewable energy represents an exciting opportunity to bring multiple benefits to our economy, our health, and our planet. And, the great news is that it is technically feasible to meet 100 percent of electricity needs in USCA states with renewable energy, even as we also clean up other sectors of the economy.

What we need now is political will to make this transition happen and ensure that its benefits reach us all. Let’s contact our policy makers at all levels, from towns and states to our federal government, and ask them to take action to ensure an equitable clean energy transition now.