Implementing Deep Decarbonization in the Northwest

Cross Winds Energy Park Starts Operations

Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest aims to represent potential energy futures in enough technical detail to be used as blueprints to develop a future of the Northwest’s choosing.

Stakeholders can use the results of this and other decarbonization studies to formulate policies and make investments and operational decisions to accelerate the clean energy transition and put the Northwest on a deep decarbonization path that is sustainable, affordable, equitable, and meets reliability and security needs.

There are several areas of additional examination that the study suggests pursuing.

Focus on Equity. This study is designed to show the trade-offs between different deep decarbonization pathways, but it does not take into account equity considerations for different communities. The study demonstrates we can decarbonize our economy, but the critical work ahead must focus on how to do so equitably.

Areas for Further Study. Understanding the dynamics of alternative fuel development on refinery activity and relative fuel prices is important for the Northwest. While it might be possible to predict the decline of certain fuels as electrification increases in buildings and transportation, the development of biofuels or electric fuels that also displace fossil fuels may be more challenging to foresee.

This is an unanswered question in almost all deep decarbonization transformations and developing long-term strategies today could mitigate the clean energy transition’s disruptive impacts and avoid unnecessary investments.

This study examined low, normal, and high hydro years; however, it held the likelihood of experiencing these hydro conditions constant through 2050 and did not consider even lower future water years, assumptions that require examination. Follow-on work should involve a scenario in which lower snowpack occurs more frequently, and seasonal dynamics are altered due to climate change.

Sensitivity analyses are needed to understand how a 10% to 20% lower hydro resource would impact other resources, as well as how removing the Lower Snake River dams and retiring the nuclear Columbia Generating Station before 2043 would affect clean power supply. Finally, a combination of all three of these changes in low-carbon resources should be modeled together.

Modeling the retirement of all coal-fired electricity generation by 2030 is an additional area for study, as is modeling natural gas at higher prices than the study assumed and, if possible, modeling natural gas with a higher emissions level to account for upstream emissions and methane leakage.

Focus on Implementation. While this study offers a functional technical representation of low-cost deep decarbonization pathways, successful implementation is more uncertain. Some implementation challenges include:

  • A nearly 100% clean grid is a key feature of low-cost decarbonization in the region. Policymakers and utilities must overcome the policy, technical, business model, and economic barriers to cleaning the grid well in advance of 2050.
  • The level of transportation electrification called for by 2050 requires immediate attention to overcoming barriers to massive adoption of electric vehicles, and to determining how the electric grid will handle the additional load required to serve new electricity needs. Not only must we move quickly to electrify transportation, we also need to invest in solutions that promote greater equity, especially for people historically least served or most impacted by fossil fuel–based transportation systems.
  • Grid infrastructure development and operational integration are needed to most efficiently leverage renewable development in California and across the West; this is complicated politically and technically and will take time. Planning must get underway now to ensure successful integration of these markets.


With several recent international and national reports clearly establishing that there is a small window of time within which to massively reduce fossil fuel dependence, and a U.S. federal government currently focused on increasing, not decreasing, the use of fossil fuels, it is imperative that states and regions in the United States step up to the decarbonization challenge.

Initiatives such as the Green New Deal, the Keep it in the Ground Movement, and 100% Clean Energy campaigns set forth a range of goals and strategies to reduce carbon emissions. Achieving these goals requires technology investment, smart policies, innovation, and regulatory reform to shape the low-carbon energy system of the future.

Solutions need time to be developed and implemented, so policymakers must anticipate them now. Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest provides support and direction for policy-makers, advocates, businesses, government leaders, and investors to begin implementing effective solutions for a deeply decarbonized future in the Northwest.

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

Eileen V. Quigley

Founder & Executive Director
Eileen V. Quigley is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute. Eileen spent seven years at Climate Solutions identifying the transition pathways off oil and coal to a low-carbon future in Washington and Oregon. She built and led the New Energy Cities program, which partnered with 22 Northwest cities and counties to reduce carbon emissions. As Director of Strategic Innovations, she oversaw New Energy Cities, as well as Sustainable Advanced Fuels.
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