How to make america Carbon Neutral: A Path to Net- Zero
This article is also available on our YouTube channel as an informational video; both look into how America can become carbon-neutral, and aspire to have a net-zero power & energy sector.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around on the internet about renewable energy, domestic energy consumption, and climate change, so how can you, the reader, better understand the topic at hand, and be better informed?
Our 2 areas of focus are:
- Where is the U.S. today when it comes to our energy consumption? What does consumption in the U.S., and in the world look like, and how much energy are we really using?
- How can we get to a carbon-neutral America? We’ll look at it from a technical perspective first, such as the costs and amounts of renewable energy needed, & then touch on high-level policy pathways there.
“We must not pause our action on climate change. The climate emergency remains one of the greatest existential threats facing humanity.””
– Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
1) Where are we today when it comes to our energy consumption? How much energy are we using, and what kinds of energy?
The world has continued to consume more and more energy from all sources as our population has skyrocketed to approximately 8 billion people.
In 2018 total world energy consumption was around 157,000 Terawatt hours. For reference the average American home uses about 11,000 kWh per year, which means we use enough energy across the world to power 14 billion average American homes….which is a lot of power. Unfortunately, over 86% of total consumption comes from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas – as the chart below shows.
Renewable energy sources account for only around 11% of all globally consumed energy. The natural question then is: who are the largest consumers of energy around the world? According to this 2015 data from the EIA, the U.S. & China account for roughly 40% of the world’s energy consumption.
The United States and China also account for roughly 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions, so as you can see there are only a handful of players, including us here in the United States, that are disproportionately impacting the rest of our fellow people across the globe.
Energy consumption also isn’t forecasted to go down anytime soon. With the world population expected to hit 11 billion by 2100, the EIA is forecasting that world energy consumption will grow by nearly 50% by 2050, which only heightens the severity of the looming energy and climate crisis. The EIA is projecting renewable energy to be the primary energy source, but we’re still getting the majority of our energy from fossil fuels under this 2050 projection scenario.
What about in the United States? What does our energy sector look like?
The US energy sector consumed around 101.3 quadrillion BTUs of energy in 2018, with only 11% of it coming from renewable energy sources. Fossil fuels accounted for roughly 80% of domestic energy consumption. Of the renewable energy sources, 22% comes from wind energy, and only 8% from solar energy. Bio mass and bio fuels account for roughly 45% of renewable energy sources. The EIA breakdown of this energy usage into end-use sectors show that roughly 37% of all energy consumption in the US goes into the transportation sector, 35% in the industrial sector, and only 16% is residential. What this shows is that we’re going to need a massive systemic overhaul to make a difference to reach net-zero.
The top renewable energy producing states are listed here; only 6 states have greater than 50% of electricity coming from renewable energy sources – and these 6 states don’t account for a large portion of the U.S. population. Clearly, we use a lot of energy, and the large bulk of it comes from fossil fuels. We’ve got a sizeable problem on our hands, which leads us to our 2nd area of focus. In order for the world to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius per the IPCC’s report, the United States must, without a doubt, reduce its carbon footprint per person.
Currently, the United States emits roughly 16.1 tons of CO2 per person per year, which is much higher than the global average of 4.8 tons per person. An 85% reduction target requires the average American to emit only 2.5 tons of CO2 per year.
2) How can we get to a net zero-emission America?
First, we’ll look at a few technical details and then we’ll explore high-level policy. In order to accomplish our emissions target levels, we’re going to have to increase our renewable energy generation capacity.
Utility Scale Solar project costs have dramatically fallen over the past decade, by around 90%, to around $40/MWh. Onshore wind costs have also fallen by vast amounts making wind, and utility scale solar cost competitive against coal, and natural gas.
The chart above provided by the International Renewable Energy Agency actually has global average costs for almost all forms of renewable energy highly competitive on a cost basis against coal, natural gas, and oil.
As economies of scale kick in, large scale solar & storage deployment are forecasted by some outlets to decline even further in cost, to less than $.05 per kilowatt hour by mid-century…thus allowing humanity to affordably deploy it as the “energy of the future!”
Energy efficiency on the consumption end is often neglected, and is one of the key areas to focus on. Building energy use, both commercial, and residential, account for roughly 39% of total US energy usage, 71% of electricity, and 54% of natural gas.
Not only do we need to generate clean power, our institutions and establishments need to retrofit, and upgrade buildings, as well as build newer buildings that abide by energy efficient regulations! These upgrades include:
- Efficient building envelopes with proper insulation, windows, and walls
- Energy conscious HVAC systems
- Smart energy information systems with smart meters, and smart energy management systems.
Natural Carbon sinks such as oceans and forests that absorb carbon dioxide from the air are of absolute importance to maintain and preserve since they play a large role in a carbon-free America, but aren’t quite the focus of our article. Artificial carbon sequestration technologies aren’t quite where they need to be to deploy in large scale manners with economy wide cost efficiency, so we’ll touch on them in another article. Costs for renewable energy generation sources have fallen dramatically, and are forecasted to fall further. Not only must we focus on clean energy generation, but also on making our consumption more efficient; there is a massive amount of forecasted demand in the coming years the must be met.
It’s becoming quite clear that only a large-scale policy shift can end fossil fuels’ dominance on our country’s energy consumption sector. While other articles may give you very detailed technical policy levers, we are aiming to give a high-level overview of what may work. What are the high level policy avenues that will our country to meet our insatiable appetite for energy in an environmentally friendly manner?
A number of local, state, and federal policies can all effectively be implemented to ensure a Carbon-Neutral America. These includes, and are not limited to:
- Local governments must come together to set localized emission goals – a system that works is adopting a cap-and-trade power generation system such as New England’s RGGI, or Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, where 11 states in the north east are annually reducing CO2 emissions from their electricity generation together by auctioning and trading carbon caps.
- Federal government mandated internal combustion engine phase-outs (Phasing out by 2030 or 2035), and providing incentives for folks to turn in their gas-guzzling vehicles. Think a cash for clunkers type system, but for EVs!
- Electrify public transportation, such as buses and trains by 2030 or 2040, and then build high speed electric rail between major cities to reduce flying when a train will do!
- Mandated building retro-fits to ensure commercial and residential buildings aren’t wildly burning natural gas in winter heating months, and are energy conscious.
- State governments can issue state level renewable energy credits, in some cases funded by taxes on oil, coal, or fracking, and drilling, to incentivize growth in large scale, wind, and solar projects. The federal government does offer federal renewable energy tax credits at the moment.
- Adopting a carbon tax at the consumer level, that would disincentivize fossil fuel usage, and would put money back into the pockets of consumers (where proceeds from the taxes are a cash rebate to consumers)
- Curb agricultural sector emissions: A 2018 report analyzed the greenhouse-gas emissions of the world’s 35 biggest meat and dairy conglomerates and found that the top 20 emitted more greenhouse gases than several OECD member countries did.
- Finally, a lot of this can only be accomplished through bold, and ambitious long-term policy proposals such as the wildly popular Green New Deal.
Ultimately, we Americans have to dig deep down to be introspective, and ask ourselves:
- What kind of country do we want to create for future generations to come?
- What kind of planet do we want?
- Do we want to be people who only look after our own needs, or will we be focused on how our actions impact our fellow citizens across the globe?
We must as a collective society be brave enough, bold enough, and sincere enough to fight for meaningful, societal change. When our kids, our grandkids, and those in future generations ask us what we did to save our one and only planet, I hope that we don’t carry the shame of saying that we didn’t do enough, and I hope that we can say that we did everything we could have.
The responsibility of being caretakers for this earth falls upon us, and it is our duty as one collective humanity to come together to solve this climate crisis, as well as tackle the ills of inequality, greed, & corruption that plague our society. It is important to have a heart that feels for others, and put ourselves in the shoes of those who are less fortunate than us…who will be disproportionately impacted.
Thanks for reading everyone, and I will leave you with this quote to end by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), from his 1937 inaugural address.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
– President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)