With a relatively clean electric grid, bold climate policies, and federal funds incentivizing clean energy, the upper left corner of the United States is turning into a proving ground for how to reduce emissions as rapidly as climate science indicates we must.
Net-Zero Northwest: Technical and Economic Pathways to 2050 (NZNW), released on June 21, 2023, offers guidance for how the Northwest region can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. NZNW is the nation’s first economy-wide analysis to describe pathways to net-zero emissions in any region in the country.
This comprehensive economic and technical analysis outlines decarbonization pathways in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, and it describes how the region’s energy system would change over the coming decades, while achieving deep greenhouse gas emission reduction.
The NZNW study models a 2050 net-zero emissions target in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change direction on maintaining a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature rise. The results describe critical actions by 2030 to reduce emissions, to increase production and use of clean electricity, to build transmission, and to develop clean fuels to decarbonize the energy systems that power Northwest buildings, transportation, and industry.
The analysis was commissioned by the Seattle-based Clean Energy Transition Institute, (CETI, which I founded and lead) and performed by Evolved Energy Research, the firm that CETI has been working with since 2018 on a variety of regional deep decarbonization studies.
The study provides guidance for policymakers, utilities, government agencies, advocates, and businesses advancing the transition to a clean energy future in the Northwest. As Alan Zelenka, Assistant Director for Planning and Innovation at the Oregon Department of Energy, observes: “The Net-Zero Northwest analysis will be invaluable for Oregon as we develop our state energy strategy over the next year. The scenarios and modeling provide the starting point we need to accelerate Oregon’s clean energy transition and will help us assess the trade-offs we’ll need to make.”
NZNW modeled 22 “what-if” scenarios to probe key questions that regional stakeholders are grappling with as they work to reduce regional carbon emissions. Examples of questions the study probed include. What if transmission cannot be expanded in the Northwest, or if transportation and buildings cannot be electrified, or if the renewable energy to power a clean energy future cannot be developed? In short, critical questions for the region to answer to ensure a transition to clean energy.
“The Net-Zero Northwest analysis brings real analytical firepower to the vital project of economy-wide decarbonization,” said KC Golden, a Washington State member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which develops energy plans for the Pacific Northwest. “By breaking down traditional silos and approaching the challenge systemically, this work opens up new, better pathways to climate solutions at scale.”
The key NZNW study findings include:
- Electricity: End-use electricity demand will more than double from 2021 to 2050, with new electrified transportation responsible for more than half of that increase. However, economy-wide energy demand would decrease by 30 percent due to efficiency gains that come primarily from fuel switching to electricity.
- Transmission: Expanding transmission across the Northwest will lower total decarbonization costs and create more options for how to meet net-zero goals. Planning must start now to overcome the challenges of building interstate transmission.
- Clean fuels: Inflation Reduction Act incentives will make hydrogen production economically feasible by 2030, particularly in Montana. By 2050, liquid fuels could be fully decarbonized with both captured carbon and hydrogen becoming valuable commodities used to produce clean hydrocarbon fuels.
- Transportation: Moving away from internal combustion engine vehicles is key to lowering energy costs during the transition to net-zero emissions. By adopting electric vehicles, the Northwest avoids the costs and production of clean liquid fuels for internal combustion engine cars.
- Buildings: Electric appliances are more energy efficient than gas-powered equivalents. Keeping gas as a fuel source to heat and cool buildings and for cooking will result in 11% higher energy demand and drive up decarbonization costs across the economy by 2050. (Retaining gas in buildings drives up decarbonization costs by $4.6 billion per year.)
- Emissions: The Northwest can get close to zero CO2 emissions by 2050, but it is not possible with current technologies to reduce non-CO2 emissions (such as methane, nitrous oxide, and other fluorinated greenhouse gasses) to zero without significantly changing agriculture and industrial processes. Achieving targets in states with large agriculture sectors will require clean fuels and carbon sequestration to help offset remaining emissions.
In addition to the energy-pathways analysis, Evolve also performed a Health Impacts analysis that explores how reducing pollutant emissions from car and truck exhaust and smokestacks burning fossil fuels would improve public health. The study found that decarbonization could avoid as many as 40 deaths per million people by 2050. Fewer deaths, fewer days of lost work, and fewer hospital admissions would also save as much as $8.9 billion per year across the region in 2050.
Developing clean energy can grow local economies and provide local health benefits due to improved air quality. However, the transition will not be equitable without careful planning and authentic engagement with communities that have historically been left out of decision-making and whose lands could be impacted by clean energy development. To address equity as the clean energy transition unfolds, stakeholders must mitigate the costs that consumers will likely face when moving to cleaner alternatives. It will be equally important to carefully site renewable energy and transmission infrastructure in ways that respect local community concerns.
Later this year, CETI will release the Net-Zero Northwest Workforce Analysis, which will examine jobs likely to be created or changed if the path to net-zero emissions were to unfold as the energy pathways analysis suggests.
Funding for this study was provided by foundations and individual donors that support an equitable clean energy transition in the Northwest.