The year is 2050, and everything in your home – perhaps in your entire life – is electric.
Your car runs on battery power. Your home heating runs through a highly efficient heat pump system that has long since replaced the gas furnace. Not even the burners on your stove produce combustion or flames any longer.
And all if it is powered by an array of solar and sometimes distant wind installations, which route electricity across the country thanks to a gargantuan network of power lines that triple the scale of the U.S.’s current transmission infrastructure. You see them – the panels, the turbines, the lines – everywhere you drive, everywhere you go.
By the year 2050, in Joe Biden’s vision of America – even more ambitious than what the Obama administration proposed – the U.S. would no longer be putting greenhouse gases into the air. And for that to happen, it’s likely that our world would have to look a lot like what was just described.
That’s the gist of what an extremely detailed study from energy experts at Princeton University describes in 344 exacting slides what it would take for the U.S. to be “net zero” -meaning, any remaining greenhouse gas emissions would be offset by subtractions through forests, agriculture, or perhaps directly sucking carbon from the air – in 30 years.
“The costs are affordable, the toolkit is there, but the scale of transformation across the country is significant,” said Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton professor who was one of three leaders of the study along with the university’s Eric Larson and Christopher Greig. “This is a major national undertaking that will only happen if we have the right national commitment.”
It may sound pretty radical, but around the world, countries are pledging just this. They will have “net zero” emissions three decades from now, they say. There’s just no other way to finally get climate change under control.
Surprisingly, once you lay it all out there as the Princeton scholars do, it’s a combination of things that seem completely doable, and those that seem utterly alien. The cost, for instance, comes in reasonably low, considering the scale of the economy and what the U.S. already spends on energy: $ 2.5 trillion invested in the 2020s, for instance, and a substantial number of new jobs get created.
But it would still all require a massive technological phase shift and an utterly remade country. In the next 10 years alone, the report says, we would need to add 50 million electric vehicles, quadruple the size of wind and solar in the U.S., and grow the transmission infrastructure by 40%. It would certainly take a concerted effort and legislation that, right now, is hard to imagine the U.S. Congress signing onto.
“If you took it as a given that you were going to get to net zero by 2050, this is the full onboard, all hands on deck kind of thing that you would need to do,” said Susan Tierney, a senior advisor at the Analysis Group and an energy expert who advised on the report. “And it’s overwhelming.”
The Princeton team used detailed energy system modeling, with five separate scenarios, to figure out how the U.S. could cease to emit any net amount of greenhouse gases by 2050. The details vary. For instance, most scenarios still use some nuclear power and some fossil fuels, but with carbon capture to remove their emissions. But a 100% renewable energy scenario, which is somewhat more costly to achieve due to its deliberately constrained options, rules even this out.
What’s more notable, though, is what is the same in the scenarios. Basically, everything that can be made electric – but especially things like home heating and cars – gets made electric. And then, renewable energy provides the electrons. Furthermore, the Princeton study goes into great detail about how, by 2050, moving those electrons around would require a massive buildout of electric transmission lines, a rough tripling of the infrastructure that currently exists.
“Essentially all studies show that decarbonization means electrification,” said David Victor, an energy policy expert at the University of California, San Diego, who was briefed on the Princeton study. “Either a lot of electrification or almost complete electrification. And that’s one of the central results from all these systems.”
In such a scenario, “the electric system is going to be much more visible and everywhere. More power lines. More solar panels. More wind turbines on the landscape,” added Tierney.
While electrification is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, it alone is not enough to reach net zero. There are going to be myriad issues that still arise.
Some fossil fuels, such as the jet fuel that powers airplanes, are going to be really tough to get rid of entirely. Also, it is not clear precisely what role will be played by one of the less carbon-intensive fuels, natural gas. In many of the scenarios it sticks around in some modified form to back up parts of the electricity system, even as it gets outfitted with carbon capture technology to make sure that greenhouse gases no longer reach the atmosphere.
“If you really take zero seriously, then how you get to zero, the last bits, is a big challenge,” said Victor.
Generally, this is where the energy models start to assume that we will have technological innovations later in the century that will fix these problems, such as the ability to withdraw a lot of carbon from fossil energy plants or directly from the air and bury it in the ground; the use of hydrogen fuels to a very substantial extent; and the growth of a very large bioenergy industry that doesn’t currently exist. These are all technologies that we fundamentally know can work, and that exist at some small scale already, but that are currently in their infancy.
So for Jenkins and the Princeton modelers, what basically has to happen is large investment in these prospects now, in order to have them available at a reasonable cost later. That’s even though we don’t know precisely how they will be used, or in what combination, just yet. Think of them as being sort of where wind and solar were several decades ago, as Jenkins puts it.
“We know how to make clean energy cheap,” said Jenkins. “We did it for wind and solar and batteries and now we have to do it for the rest of the toolkit.”
The central question behind all of this is simply what is politically feasible. It’s possible Democrats could still manage to control the U.S. Senate, in which case some type of green stimulus that gets some of these gears turning could occur. But even then it’s not clear how many of these pieces could feasibly be put in place – although, it is important to note that at the state level in places like New York and California, much change is also occurring, although not necessarily with the dollar amounts needed.
The incoming Biden team knows what needs to happen, says Victor. “They know that electricity is central, and they know that you have to combine carbonization with known technologies with a big investment in innovation,” he said.
But how tied their hands will be remains to be seen.
And hands won’t only be tied by national politics, Tierney notes. There could be all kinds of “friction,” in her words, of a sort that energy system modelers do not claim to be able to include in their scenarios. Legal issues. Permitting issues. Changes in consumer behavior – or, resistance to changes. People wanting to keep their gas burners on their stoves, for instance. Or not wanting to buy an electric car.
All of this is hard to account for in any fixed way but is likely to make any transition, well, slower.
Another massive issue, said Columbia University’s Jason Bordoff, who also has been briefed on the report, is the matter of permitting all of this new infrastructure – both all of the renewable energy installations and also all the new transmission infrastructure to carry the power around. And getting it all approved could hit significant, often local hurdles.
“It is a reminder that if we are serious about deep decarbonization, every week needs to be infrastructure week from now on,” he added.
But of course, we won’t get to net zero in precisely the ways described in the report, Jenkins acknowledged, nor will we probably actually get there precisely in 2050. Rather, a document like this lays out the exacting details, and we the people decide how many of them we will actually accept – and when.
“It does provide information about how you could get to [net zero by] 2050 if society wanted to do that,” said Tierney. “So, it takes it as a given that society would.”