Cover of report
Courtesy of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

By Jay Landers

If the United States is to achieve the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the nation needs to double its amount of carbon-free electricity and vastly expand the scope of its electrical transmission facilities before the end of the current decade, according to a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Aimed at facilitating greater use of renewable energy sources, these recommendations are two of dozens of policy prescriptions included in the report, which seeks to provide a short-term road map for how the United States could decarbonize its energy system by midcentury.

Released earlier this year, the report — titled Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System — was prepared by the National Academies’ Committee on Accelerating Decarbonization in the United States: Technological, Policy, and Societal Dimensions.

“Because of dramatic decreases in the costs of renewable electricity and batteries, the U.S. can now — during the 2020s — make strides toward achieving a net-zero-emitting energy system at a cost lower than investing in reduced air pollution alone,” said Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, who was quoted in press material distributed by the National Academies. Pacala is the chair of the committee that authored the report.

“The committee was tasked to assess the technological, social, and behavioral dimensions of policies and research activities required over the next five to 20 years to put the United States on a path to net-zero emissions by midcentury,” the report states.

The assessment “provides a technical blueprint and policy manual for the U.S. energy system over the first critical 10 years of a 30-year effort to transform to net-zero (greenhouse gas) emissions,” the report states.

The next decade

The wide-ranging report focuses mainly on what should be done during the next decade to lay the groundwork for achieving the goal of decarbonization, particularly because many future steps remain unclear. To this end, committee members opted to focus on what the report refers to as “‘no-regrets’ actions.” These are “essential near-term policies that are valuable under any feasible pathway to a net-zero-emissions energy system,” the report notes.

The publication examines the four sectors that result in most of the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions: electricity, transportation, industry, and buildings. At the same time, the committee notes that some groups within these four sectors are less ready to decarbonize than others.

“Although technology exists to decarbonize all parts of the energy system, some sectors remain at precommercial or first-of-a-kind demonstration stages and will require significant improvement in cost and performance to become commercially viable,” the report notes. “These include aviation, shipping, and industrial subsectors such as steel, cement, and chemicals manufacturing.”

In such cases, carbon dioxide emissions will need to be addressed in other ways, the committee concludes.

“If innovation fails to provide cost-effective alternatives to some of the difficult-to-decarbonize components in time, negative-emissions technologies such as direct air capture and storage, bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, and enhanced carbon uptake in soils and forests also offer additional options to offset residual emissions from activities that prove more costly to directly decarbonize,” according to the report. 

“The nation has this decade to proactively invest in maturing and improving this suite of solutions and to ensure that as many as possible are prepared for widespread use in the 2030s and 2040s.”

Technological goals

As part of its deliberations, the committee addressed multiple goals for net-zero policy during the remainder of the current decade, including the following five technological goals:

      Investing in energy efficiency and productivity.

      Electrifying energy services in transportation, buildings, and industry.

      Producing carbon-free electricity.

      Planning, permitting, and building critical infrastructure.

      Expanding the innovation toolkit.

The report lists critical near-term actions related to each of these goals. Under the first, investing in energy efficiency and productivity, the committee recommended decreasing the energy used for space conditioning and the loads associated with equipment that plugs into wall outlets. The reduction suggested is by 3% per year for the next 10 years for existing buildings and 50% for new buildings, the report states.

For the second goal — electrifying energy services in transportation, buildings, and industry — the committee recommended that 50% of new vehicle sales by 2030 involve zero-emissions vehicles. It also recommended greater use of electric heat pumps in place of furnaces and boilers powered by fossil fuels. Also needed are “policies for new construction to be all-electric in all practical climate zones” and a transition from “low- to moderate-temperature process heat sources to low-carbon electrical power,” the report states.

Under the heading of producing carbon-free electricity, the third goal, the committee calls for doubling the share of electricity from noncarbon-emitting sources to roughly 75% by 2030, according to the report. “Until 2025, this would require an average pace of wind and solar installation that each year matches or exceeds the record historical yearly deployment of these technologies and accelerates to an even faster pace from 2025 to 2030,” the report states.

For the fourth goal of planning, permitting, and building critical infrastructure, the report calls for increasing the “overall transmission capacity (as measured in GW-miles) by as much as 60% by 2030 to interconnect and harness low-cost wind and solar power across the country.” However, the report notes that this goal is “likely to prove difficult or impossible without regulatory reform.”

Along with accelerating the build-out of electric vehicle recharging stations nationwide, the committee highlighted the need to implement a “national (carbon dioxide) transport and storage network to ensure that (carbon dioxide) can be captured at point sources across the country,” the report notes. The report calls for $5 billion in federal funding over 10 years to grow the nation’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

As for the fifth goal — expanding the innovation toolkit — the committee recommends that the federal government triple its spending on clean energy research, development, and demonstration. “Innovations that would fundamentally enhance the net-zero transition include next-generation energy systems for transportation, buildings, and industry; improved energy storage and firm low-carbon electricity generation options to complement variable renewable electricity; low-cost zero-carbon fuels, including hydrogen from the electrolysis of water or biomass gasification; lower-cost carbon capture and use technologies; and lower-cost direct air capture,” the report states.

Broader policies

On a broader scale, the committee prescribes multiple “systemwide policies” intended to facilitate the transition to a decarbonized energy system, the report notes. Chief among these is an “economywide price on carbon” that would begin at $40 per ton of carbon dioxide and increase by 5% annually, the report says. This policy would generate approximately $2 trillion by 2030.

“The advantages of an economywide price on carbon are that it would unlock innovation in every corner of the energy economy, send appropriate signals to myriad public and private decision-makers, and encourage a cost-effective route to net zero,” according to the report.

To help finance efforts related to the transition to a low-carbon economy, the committee calls for the creation of a so-called green bank that would receive $30 billion in initial capitalization from the federal government. The green bank would receive an additional $3 billion annually until 2030.

The report also includes a recommendation for a “clean energy standard for electricity generation” that would force energy providers to switch to carbon-free sources of electricity. The standard is “designed to reach 75% zero-emissions electricity by 2030 and decline in emissions intensity to net-zero emissions by 2050,” the report notes.

To promote the electrification of the transportation sector and buildings, the committee recommended manufacturing and performance standards for electric vehicles and building equipment. “For transportation, these would specify fleetwide emissions standards for new vehicle sales that drop to zero in time for the on-road fleet to meet net-zero goals in 2050, appliance standards for the electrification of building heating and cooling, and policies for accelerating the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure,” the report notes.

Costs and benefits

If implemented, the committee’s policy recommendations “would catalyze the first 10 years of a transition to net zero and provide the associated environmental, health, and societal benefits, while controlling costs, protecting the competitiveness of the U.S. economy, and compensating for market failures,” according to the report.

In terms of costs, the committee estimates that $350 billion in federal appropriations would be required over 10 years to pay for its recommended policies that involve the U.S. government. However, the report notes that the approximately $2 trillion that would be raised by the carbon charge would “fully offset proposed appropriations and provide substantial funds for targeted rebates and other programs to address equity and distributional concerns.”

As for capital investments, approximately $2 trillion in incremental spending “must be mobilized over the next decade for projects that come online by 2030 (i.e., total capital in service in the 2020s) to put the United States on track to net zero by 2050,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the committee points out that implementing its recommendations would result in substantial economic improvements. “The transition to a decarbonized system would have significant benefits in the United States, on the order of $200 billion to $300 billion annually of avoided climate damages, in addition to preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and saving trillions of dollars of health costs from fossil fuel pollution,” the report states.

“Because the energy system impacts so many aspects of society, a transition to net zero will have profound implications well beyond climate and energy — and it is paramount that we maintain a strong social contract to ensure this transition benefits all communities,” Pacala says.