A strong clean energy standard is among the most vital policy steps needed to push the United States toward an entirely decarbonized economy, according to new emissions modeling from clean energy research organization Energy Innovation.

The analysis suggests President Joe Biden’s plan to move the country to carbon-free electricity must play a key role in helping the U.S. reach global climate targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next century.

In a Thursday report, Energy Innovation, whose co-founder Sonia Aggarwal recently joined the White House climate policy team, laid out a policy pathway to hitting the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed to keep warming below the most dangerous levels.

A clean energy standard, along with policies to extend renewable tax credits and limit emissions from gas power plants, would help the U.S. make significant progress toward its climate goals, according to the analysis. But reaching Biden's goal of a zero-carbon electricity sector by 2035 will require a massive effort. Renewables made up just 21 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2020 while nuclear generation accounted for about 20 percent, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

Even so, decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid will be a “linchpin to decarbonizing the whole economy," said Robbie Orvis, the organization’s director of energy policy design, because it clears up a significant portion of U.S. emissions while allowing for electrification in other sectors. Electricity accounts for more than a quarter of U.S. emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, behind only transportation in overall emissions — and decarbonizing the transportation sector will largely depend on switching to electric vehicles powered by clean energy. 

Source: Energy Innovation

Electrification could then assist in cleaning up buildings and transportation, while green hydrogen fills in where electricity can't. The model does include some carbon-capture technologies but does not include carbon removal.

The research adds to an already hefty body of data showing that the United States, along with the world’s other large emitters, needs to make drastic and swift emissions cuts in order to fight climate change. President Biden has pledged to unleash unprecedented clean energy development while adding millions of jobs. The Energy Innovation pathway would create 3.1 million job-years (amounting to one job for one year) by 2030, according to the group’s analysis.

Political calculations

Numerous studies have shown that a highly renewable future is technically possible if resources and the grid are optimized for it. But many political considerations stand in the way of the policies to get there.

In confirmation hearings this week, Republican Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee challenged Rep. Debra Haaland, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior, on the administration’s plans for fossil fuel development on federal land. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said the administration’s pause on new fossil fuel leases on federal land was tantamount to “taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.”

The questioning underscored sharp differences in how lawmakers view the nation’s energy future and the challenge the Biden administration will face in achieving wide-reaching climate policy such as a clean energy standard. At the same time, Energy Innovation's report indicates long-term economic benefits of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, with its modeled pathway yielding a gross domestic product boost of $489 billion per year by 2030.

Eliminating all coal emissions by 2030 is “a key piece” of reaching the group's optimal pathway, said Orvis. “If you don’t do that, you basically can’t hit the target.”

That's an achievable goal based on the current rate of plant closures. But it's likely to be opposed by lawmakers such as Barrasso and Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who now chairs the Senate’s energy committee, and who still holds stock in the coal brokerage he once ran, according to The Washington Post.

Requiring any new natural-gas power plants to come outfitted with carbon-capture technologies, as Energy Innovation's modeling indicates will be a necessary part of decarbonizing the grid, will be even more difficult. Many utilities have gas plants in their long-range plans, including power providers that have emissions reduction targets.

The Biden administration could pursue some of the policies Energy Innovation proposes via administrative action, such as regulating coal and gas plants. Experts and advocates have also raised the budget-reconciliation process as a possible avenue by which to enact a clean energy standard.

The publication of Energy Innovation's paper comes just after the United States officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement. As part of the pact, the Biden administration plans to release an updated emissions target ahead of a U.S. climate summit on Earth Day in April. The next United Nations climate change conference is planned for Glasgow, Scotland in November.

Emissions cuts proposed by Energy Innovation are at the higher end of — and at times exceed — those laid out by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The organization says that by 2030, the United States must cut carbon-dioxide emissions 57 percent below 2010 levels, reaching cuts of 110 percent by midcentury. Doing so would avoid more than 65,000 premature deaths by midcentury, in addition to creating jobs, said Orvis.

This isn’t the first time that Energy Innovation has framed a clean energy standard as integral to reaching significantly high penetrations of renewables on the grid. Last year, co-founder Aggarwal published a piece describing the policies that could build to 90 percent clean energy by 2035.

“It’s very important to do this methodically and carefully and to make sure that we are building the right resources that we need. That would include transmission and storage alongside clean energy,” said Orvis. “Managed correctly and with the right market design and standards, there's no reason we can't get this very high level of clean energy in a short amount of time.”