Planning for Zero Carbon 2050

The Virginia Energy Plan is currently being updated as required under Virginia Code § 67-201. The plan is updated every four years and covers a ten year period. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy is leading the effort and has hosted a number of public input sessions. They also are accepting written comments through Virginia Regulatory Town Hall online forum. Below is an expanded version of comments made by Zero Carbon’s Scott Emery at the August 16 public input session at George Mason University.

Over the decades, Virginia built its electric power industry following the common path of building big, centralized production facilities and expanding the electric power grid to make affordable electricity accessible to all. Abundant, energy-dense fossil fuels power most of our generation, and  have significantly shaped how our electric power industry operates. In many ways, this has been good for Virginia, but it is time for a change.

We now know, based on hard science, that the burning of fossil fuels produces heat-trapping ‘greenhouse’ gases that are responsible for climate change. The burning of fossil fuels also contributes to other types of air pollution: power plants emit particulates and compounds that produce toxic ground level ozone, which is a big problem in parts of Virginia.

When we consider the challenge of climate change, the best available science tells us that to avoid the most extreme effects of rising temperatures, we must hold global temperature increases under 2°C (3.6°F). To realize this goal, the U.S. and other major economies must reduce carbon emissions by 80% by mid-century; and, this in turn requires that the electric power sector get to to zero-carbon by 2050.

The good news is that Zero-Carbon-2050 is not beyond our reach and progress can be made quickly. Across the country, alternative approaches to producing and delivering electricity are taking hold.  The costs of power generated by renewables are falling rapidly; our ability to integrate variable generation resources into the grid is growing; storage solutions are becoming more affordable; demand management is advancing; and the use of energy efficiency measures is on the rise.

In parallel, to state-level deployment of the above innovations, states with regulated utilities must recognize that continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure will strain our ability to act in the future. Fossil fuel generating power plants that we build today will have 30 to 40 year lives and will still be operating mid-century. In a Zero-Carbon-2050 scenario, these plants will either have to be abandoned and become stranded assets or they will require costly upgrades to achieve Zero Carbon operations. In both cases, under our regulated utility model, ratepayers will be handed the bill.

While we are closer than some might think to a  zero carbon power sector, we cannot leave the transformation to chance. Getting to Zero-Carbon-2050 will not be easy. Transforming our power sector will be complex and will require new innovations. We are unlikely to get to Zero-Carbon-2050 without some dispatchable zero-carbon generation such as hydroelectric or advanced nuclear; Zero-Carbon-2050 will require new, lower-cost storage solutions; and carbon capture and storage will undoubtedly be part of our Zero-Carbon-2050 energy economy. Addressing the challenges of these developments requires intentional effort and planning.

Some will object to the Zero-Carbon-2050 vision saying that it will cost too much. However, in-depth economic analysis tells us that on overall  gross domestic product (GDP) terms the costs will be low, if we work smartly and do not delay in taking action. Furthermore, compared to the risks and uncertainties of climate change, the costs of achieving Zero-Carbon-2050 are easily justified.

There is no doubt that Zero-Carbon-2050 is achievable and that it is the goal we must pursue. But time is of the essence and we must act now. To this end, Virginia’s energy plan update must:

  1. Establish a specific, measurable path to zero-carbon electric power production by 2050.
  2. Set explicit criteria and timing for state-wide grid modernization sufficient to support Zero-Carbon-2050.
  3. Include research and development initiatives that leverage Virginia’s research universities and world class workforce.
  4. Initiate investigations into new regulatory and business models that expand individual energy independence, enhance flexibility, cultivate innovation, and expand the use of renewable energy production.

These are not easy steps to take, but they are steps we must take if we are to leave our planet habitable for those who follow. With a Virginia Energy Plan that sets a clear vision for a transformed Energy Economy and by taking bold action to execute that plan, we will succeed; we will achieve zero-carbon-2050.

 

 

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