Hal Harvey’s Insights And Updates: New Research Shows The U.S. Can Hit 90% Clean Energy By 2035

Once again, it turns out that it’s cheaper to save the climate than destroy it.

Important new modeling from the University of California at Berkeley and GridLab, led by Energy Innovation, reports the United States can reliably hit 90 percent clean energy by 2035, without increasing customer bills from today’s levels.

Plummeting costs for wind, solar, and energy storage are the driving force behind this trend. Actual wind and solar costs for 2017-2018 were lower than most models’ projected costs for 2030-2035, while battery prices have fallen 85 percent since 2010.

Hitting 90 percent clean energy would create a sustained economic boost, injecting $1.7 trillion of private investment into the economy over 15 years, supporting 530,000 new net jobs per year, and cutting wholesale power prices 10 percent.

Cleaning up the U.S. grid would also reduce economy-wide carbon emissions 27 percent, avoid $1.2 trillion in environmental and health costs, and prevent up to 85,000 premature deaths associated with power plant emissions. These are compelling results: They are backed up by careful research.

Energy Innovation developed a dynamic online data explorer to support the research that allows anyone to see how the grid’s generation mix and cumulative clean energy additions change over time in each of the country’s regional grid areas.

The clean energy transition need not mean leaving utilities with excessive stranded assets. A 2035 target year provides enough time to retire all existing coal generation and reduce natural gas consumption for power by 70 percent, leaving existing gas generation online but largely idle, used only for grid balancing at the highest demand moments. Of course, building more gas power plants would instead create huge stranded costs.

Unfortunately, America’s current electricity policy framework is not on track to deliver this economic opportunity. Energy Innovation released a companion set of policy recommendations with the 2035 modeling, laying out a series of technology-neutral actions to cost-effectively and equitably support the rapid transition to a clean electricity future.

Success does not depend on all adopting all of these policies at once. Most progress can be made with a federal clean energy standard that builds on and complements state policy leadership, starting with a 55 percent federal clean target by 2025, ramping up to 90 percent by 2035, and ultimately hitting 100 percent by 2045.

Federal, state, and power market policymakers should also work to extend clean energy tax credits, create a just transition for coal-dependent communities, help utilities refinance retired coal equity and debt; streamline renewables siting and transmission planning, invest in R&D to make future technologies a reality; and reform power markets and utility business models. That seems like a long list, but it is all aimed at delivering vast simultaneous economic and environmental benefits.

Building a 90 percent clean electricity system is a no-regrets opportunity for economic recovery and would be a major decarbonization win, and it would put us well on the way to a 100 percent clean energy future.