The following is a contributed article by David Wooley, professor at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy.
What is the future of gas in the U.S. electric power sector? Is it essential, long-term, for a reliable and economical electric supply? A new study from UC Berkeley provides the latest answer, demonstrating it is technically and economically feasible to reach 90% clean electricity by 2035 without building any new gas plants and reducing generation from existing plants by 70%, all without any increase in wholesale power costs compared to today.
Let’s clear away the myths about gas, renewables and the grid.
First, there is a widely circulated assumption that gas is cleaner than coal. It’s true that gas power plants produce less acid gas (SO2, NOX) and metals emissions than coal, but greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from gas are not significantly lower than coal. Methane emissions occur along the gas supply chain, from getting gas out of the ground and to market. Methane has 84 times the global warming impact of CO2 from burning coal and gas, a fact often overlooked in gas industry promotions. The fact is that gas used to make electricity is not “clean” and remains a serious problem for the climate.
Second, there is the question of reliability and whether we can trust a renewables-heavy grid when the sun isn’t shining. The truth is, the U.S. power grid has always been reliable using a diverse set of generation types. Today low-cost wind and solar, paired with battery storage technologies and existing hydro, nuclear and gas generation allows the U.S. to dramatically increase renewable generation, and cut fossil fuel use, without sacrificing dependability or raising costs.
Third, there is an old argument that gas is cheaper than renewables. Well, not anymore. In recent years, utility-scale wind and solar plants routinely out-bid gas and coal in wholesale electric markets. This is in part due to federal tax credits, but gas production also enjoys a wide range of federal subsidies, and wind and solar plant costs in many cases are already lower than gas generation even without considering the tax credits.
And finally, people often ask if renewables are only cost effective in very sunny and windy regions of Southwest and Plains states. The answer is no. Low costs are now driving a geographic expansion of renewables, making wind and solar cost-effective in all regions of the country.
The latter points are driven home by the study released last week by the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. The 2035 Report finds that plummeting costs of zero-carbon technologies allows the U.S. electricity system to deeply decarbonize, and lower customer electricity costs compared to today. This is the first report to show that technologies widely available today can preserve a dependable grid, and achieve large employment, health and climate benefits by 2035.
The report finds that it is technically and economically feasible to do so without new fossil gas power plants. This stands in contrast to the oil and gas industry’s efforts to rapidly expand gas generation in the U.S. and globally. According to RMI, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025 and another $30 billion for new interstate gas pipelines.
Maintaining a dependable grid
The study shows that the existing fleet of domestic gas plants, operating infrequently in combination with hydro, nuclear and battery storage, is enough to support a dependable grid during times when wind, solar and battery generation is low. The 70% decrease in gas generation that would come with the transition to 90% clean electricity would drop gas's share of U.S. electric generation from 37% to 10%.
Gas would remain a part of the electric sector, but at a much smaller level than today. This is a good thing, since methane and CO2 emission from gas production and use must decline steeply to have any chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. A 90% clean electric generation sector reduces annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 1.6 billion tons of CO2. The GHG benefits do not stop there, since deep carbon reductions in the electric sector are a key step to decarbonize transportation and buildings.
The economic benefits of this shift are attractive. A turn away from new gas and existing coal generation in favor of renewables and storage would produce a net increase of 530,000 energy sector jobs and boost the economy with $1.7 trillion of private investment for renewables and storage. The job benefits would be widespread since utility-scale solar generation and wind are economic winners in every region and low-cost wind power’s range is expanding fast.
The job benefits make this a powerful COVID-19 recovery strategy. Most of the economic benefits can be achieved quickly, without increased government spending.
Can the U.S. really build enough renewables and storage to displace gas? Yes. This is shown by the number of utility-scale renewables projects currently in development — wholesale market interconnection queues include 544 GW of wind, solar and storage plants — and historic growth rates for other forms of power generation, such as gas.
To reach 90% clean electricity by 2035, 1,100 GW of new wind and solar need to be built, averaging about 70 GW per year. We’ve built on this scale before — the U.S. added 65 GW of natural gas generation in 2002. Moreover, the wind, solar and storage industries believe they can do it.
What’s the catch? It won’t happen without changes in federal and state energy policy. Old habits, that no longer serve current needs, die hard. America’s current electricity policy framework and market systems cannot deliver on this economic opportunity. Every day brings news of coal plant retirements, and investment in renewable energy, but policy changes can accelerate this and help support recovery from the current economic crisis.
While many states and cities are leading the country by passing policies to decarbonize by 2050, in the electric power sector we can — and must — go much faster. This study shows that targeting 2035 for deep decarbonization is possible, would increase employment and inject investment into the economy, improve public health, and go a long way toward aligning U.S. policy with climate realities.