Deep Decarbonization is Achievable in Northwest

Eileen V. Quigley
August 19, 2019

The Clean Energy Transition Institute released Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest on June 5, 2019. This study is the first economy-wide analysis to examine decarbonization pathways mapped to the Northwest’s economic and institutional realities.

The Institute commissioned the study to understand how Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington could technically and economically achieve a low-carbon economy over the next three decades.

The analysis looks at how the region could meet an overall economy-wide goal of 80% emissions reduction below 1990 by 2050, a goal consistent with deep decarbonization analyses to date.

However, the study focused on energy-sector (liquid fuels, pipeline gas, and electricity) emissions and because solutions to reduce non-energy emissions are less developed, the reduction target for energy-sector emissions must be higher and therefor is 86% below 1990 levels by 2050.  

A Decarbonized Northwest in 2050

The study examines eight scenarios, including a Business as Usual Case, reflecting today’s policies, and a Central Case, the most efficient pathway for decarbonizing the Northwest.

Prior studies answered questions of more limited scope, examining only the electricity grid, one state, one utility service territory, or the role of one fuel in specific economic sectors. This study is unique in offering a blueprint that broadly frames the opportunities and trade-offs for the region to achieve economy-wide deep decarbonization between today and 2050.

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the emissions decline from 2020 to 2050 by each state, as well as by fossil fuel type. These emission reductions are achieved through five key decarbonization strategies: energy efficiency; decarbonizing electricity; decarbonizing gas and liquid fuels; fuel-switching in industry, transportation, and buildings; and carbon capture. The cost of achieving these reductions is offset by avoided fossil fuel purchases.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows that Northwest CO2 emissions decrease in the Central Case from 165 million metric tons (MMT) in 2020 to 21 MMT in 2050. Emissions in the residential sector decline by 95%; in the commercial sector by 86%; in the productive (industrial) sector by 72%; and in the transportation sector by 91%.

Clean, Efficient Electricity Key to Decarbonizing

In the Central Case, electricity will need to be 96% clean by 2050 and will be used to heat and cool buildings and power vehicles that currently use fossil fuels.

Despite a 30% increase in population, total energy demand decreases by 34%, while the share of electricity and electric fuels serving that demand grows from approximately 23% today to 55% from 2020 to 2050.

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows the decline in electricity emissions (orange line) and the rise in electricity generation (blue line), while Figure 4 depicts the decline in energy demand and the increase in electricity’s share of total demand (orange swath).

Figure 4

Low-carbon Transport, Increased Transmission, and Emerging Technologies

Clean electricity decarbonizes some liquid fuels, and those industries that electricity cannot power—such as aviation and long-haul trucking—will use biofuels. As vehicles transition to electricity, liquid fuels decrease from one-half of today’s energy demand to one-fifth by 2050.

Billions of dollars can be saved if the Northwest and California electric grids are expanded and operations are better integrated. Building additional transmission lines between the Northwest and California electricity grids reduces the costs of decarbonization by an estimated  $11.1 billion in net present value over the 30-year study period (accrued to the combined California and Northwest region).

Over time, the region will need to deploy emerging technologies, such as electrolysis to produce synthetic liquid or gaseous fuels and electric boilers to produce steam, which exist today but need investment and development to ensure that they play an increasingly critical role balancing the grid and generating electric fuels.

Costs Peak at 1% of Region's GDP

The cumulative costs of decarbonizing the energy system in the Central Case from 2020 to 2050 are 9.5% higher than the capital and operating expenses of the Business as Usual energy system. This represents roughly 1% of the region’s GDP.

The annual costs of the Central Case peak at 16.1% above the Business as Usual Case in 2038 and decline to 8.3% higher by 2050, by which time the Central Case has an avoided carbon cost of $48/tonne and declining. Net annual costs peak at approximately 1% of the region’s GDP and are offset by reduced spending on fossil fuels.

The net costs of a decarbonized system are largely due to the additional cost of producing biofuels, investing in electrification and efficiency, and building renewable electricity infrastructure, offset by reduced spending on fossil fuels, largely gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.  

Change in Energy Demand and Supply 2020 to 2050

Overall demand and supply for clean electricity in the optimal case would increase significantly as electrification decreases liquid fuel and gas demand for the transport, building, and industrial sectors, as this infographic depicts.

Biofuels and synthetic liquids produced with clean electricity would significantly reduce the carbon intensity of liquid fuels, while synthetic gas would decarbonize pipeline gas. Coal retirement and new renewable energy would decarbonize the electricity supply.

For additional information on the Northwest deep decarbonization pathways study, please see:

Eileen V. Quigley

Founder & Executive Director
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