Pathways to a Clean Energy Future

The Clean Energy Transition Institute commissioned an economy-wide deep decarbonization pathways study to serve as a blueprint for how Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington might achieve a low-carbon, clean energy economy over the next three decades.

The study, Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest, examines alternative pathways to achieving an 86% reduction of carbon emissions below 1990 levels in the built environment, transport sector, and electricity grid by 2050. A pathways approach enables an understanding of the most economically and technically efficient means of realizing this mid-century decarbonization goal.

The study models the energy systems in each of the four Northwest states to identify the interdependencies, efficiencies, and trade-offs that must be considered when pursuing deep decarbonization. The study’s purpose is to provide guidance to policymakers, advocates, leaders, and investors as decisions are made to catalyze the clean energy transition in the Northwest over the coming three decades.

Since the fall of 2017, several regional studies have been conducted for different stakeholders and with varying assumptions that offer insights into different aspects of the Northwest’s decarbonization puzzle.

This is the first economy-wide analysis to examine the most likely decarbonization scenarios mapped to the region’s economic and institutional realities. Prior studies looked only at the electricity grid, at one state or one utility service territory, or at the role of one fuel in specific sectors or subsectors of the economy this Figure shows:

Meeting the Challenge of Our Time, page 21

Each of these studies had a narrower purpose and answered questions of more limited scope than those posed by Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest. For example, none has looked at the impact of constraining biomass, the use of natural gas in transport, limited electrification, or greater integration of the Northwest and California electric grids.

This study is unique in offering a blueprint that broadly frames the opportunities and trade-offs for the Northwest to achieve economy-wide deep decarbonization between 2020 and 2050.

Key Findings

The study demonstrates how the Northwest can rapidly deploy strategies to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector efficiently and at least cost for the electricity grid, the built environment, and transportation. The region’s relatively clean electricity grid and proximity to California, where climate policies aim to achieve a massive transition to clean energy within the coming three decades, are key assets.

Consistent with prior decarbonization pathways efforts, this study demonstrates that the low-carbon system of the future must have four primary features: (1) energy must be used more efficiently than it is today; (2) electricity generation must be as clean as possible; (3) liquid fuels must be as low-carbon as technically and economically feasible; and (4) clean electricity must be used for as many purposes as possible.

Deep decarbonization is achievable in the Northwest. Multiple strategies exist to achieve a deeply decarbonized energy system in the Northwest using today’s technologies. Policymakers must decide how to achieve a low-carbon energy system at an acceptable cost.

Energy efficiency is a key strategy to reduce costs and meet goals. Decreasing the demand for energy through efficiency reduces the need for new energy supply and associated infrastructure, and therefore also reduces the cost of decarbonization.

A nearly 100% clean electricity grid is needed. A Northwest electric grid nearly free of fossil fuels efficiently achieves mid-century climate targets. Carbon emissions from electricity generation were reduced by 96% in the study’s Central Case, the core decarbonization pathway.

While coal is eliminated in a deep decarbonized future, a small amount of natural gas–generated electricity (just 3.7% of annual energy in the study’s Central Case by 2050) ensures that the grid can reliably deliver power during periods of low generation from hydroelectricity and other renewable sources.

Demand for clean electricity will continue to grow. A low-carbon future hinges on an integrated energy economy where power sources—and electricity in particular—play a cross-sectoral role in transportation and the built environment. Widespread transportation electrification (100% of light-duty, 60% of medium-duty, and 40% of heavy-duty vehicles in the study’s Central Case) will be crucial to reduce emissions at least cost and avoid using either scarce biofuel supplies or relatively expensive electric fuels for transport.

Clean electricity also needs to replace oil and gas to heat and cool buildings in a low-carbon future. Finally, clean electricity will be used to produce synthetic gas and liquids as additional energy sources.

Increased grid integration and transmission between the Northwest and California is cost-effective. Significant cost savings can be realized 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 could reduce 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.

Sustainable biomass is best used for jet and diesel fuel. The best use for sustainable biomass is creating liquid fuels to power the hardest-to-electrify subsectors within transportation, namely aviation and long-distance freight shipping.

Emerging technologies will play a critical decarbonizing role. With the correct mix of regulatory guidance, investment, and research it is likely that a range of technological developments will emerge to solve some of the most challenging deep decarbonization problems in the years beyond 2030.

These technologies, which include electrolysis, direct air capture, hybrid boilers, hydrogen, synthetic fuels, and carbon capture, will provide economic value for excess renewables, displace conventional gas and liquid fuels, and help balance the grid.

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 that we can decarbonize our economy, but the critical work ahead must focus on how to do so equitably.

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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