Here’s the Plan: How the Northwest will get to Carbon Net-Zero


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.

Eileen V. Quigley
Eileen V. Quigley
Eileen V. Quigley is the Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute, which advances strategies to achieve deep decarbonization and accelerate the transition from fossil fuel to clean energy. Eileen’s career includes eight years as a journalist in Washington, DC and New York City, covering politics and business; 10 years in the high-tech industry in Seattle; and 14 years as a nonprofit manager. She is a part-time Instructor at Western Washington University’s Institute for Energy Studies, where she co-teaches a winter quarter course on transitioning the Northwest energy systems to clean energy, and the author of several papers on clean energy solutions. Eileen received her Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia University and her Bachelor of Arts in Literature from Yale University.


  1. Eileen V. Quigley,

    So I grew up in rural Montana, moved to Greater Seattle and have worked 35 years in construction. I own a small home in Tacoma that has a gas furnace, a gas water heater. I drive a full size truck usually full of tools. I’ve earned a living building McMansions for rich people that break ever environmental rule in the book.

    This article is just fantasy. It’s not going to happen.

    The worst part of is NW environmentalists almost universally support tax schemes that penalize blue collar and rural people and let those living in McMansions off the hook by paying some sort of “carbon tax” they can easily afford.

    So please spell out what this vague plan would mean to me and mine by 2050.

    The environmental movement has always been about judging people and rationing resources around a central plan. That’s not America.

    It’s time to start living in the real world and stop talking about some plan in 2050.

    • On the positive side, I saw a commitment to reduce consumption by half. (First of five “decarbonization pillars.”) Good start!

      OTOH, I agree it’s a fantasy; the “pillars” conclude with a commitment to a huge quantity of carbon sequestration that is technologically impossible (it basically violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics to “sequester” carbon out of carbon dioxide in large quantities). Only trees do it well because they rely on truly zero carbon solar power.

  2. I’m all for promoting this plan and publishing it in detail; I find no è than a little inappropriate that the PA writer presenting it also funded it. The reader should have been informed of that from the git-go.

    Even better in my opinion would have been for Ms Quigley to introduce the study more demotically, “in her own voice,” then summarize the study’s conclusions, as any reporter would, and then provide a link to the full text.

  3. There is a problem in providing new transmission to renewable generation. Renewables typically produce 20-30% on average of their maximum production, but transmission lines must be built to carry the maximum of their output. Therefore, without subsidy, the costs of a new transmission line must be spread over relatively few kilowatt-hours of output, raising the cost considerably.
    There is another issue: renewables in the PNW generally means wind, and wind doesn’t tend to blow during the hottest and coldest weather. There was almost no wind generation during the hot spell over July 4, for instance. Storage technology does not exist to store power over such long periods.
    Yes, net zero can be accomplished. It’s only a matter of cost and who pays for it. It won’t be cheap.

    • Exactly.
      And the renewable developers receive enormous subsidies for bringing us this “net zero” benefit, all the while degrading the aesthetic beauty of many areas, including the eastern portion of the Columbia Gorge and Cascade views.

  4. Our planet is already experiencing the adverse impacts of a warmer climate. Some would say we are facing an “existential crisis.” I am not inclined to go that far, but we certainly are facing a very big problem that needs immediate attention. Even though the PNW, blessed with hydro, has relatively low emissions, it is important that we act. What I am not convinced of is that our resources should be deployed exclusively with a local frame. Each ton of GHG we reduce helps the global atmosphere. No one has explained why we ought to deploy our resources locally if we can secure greater reductions by spending the money elsewhere. Why spend $50 to reduce a ton of emissions if we can reduce a ton of GHG emissions for $5 elsewhere? I am thinking of subsidizing transition from coal fired electricity in South Africa, for example. With an urgent problem to address, why not Invest where we can get the greatest GHG reduction?

  5. What no one seems to want to acknowledge is the amount of raw materials required to build this dream we have of an all electric economy. Machines need to be made, many, many machines. And these machines require an awful lot of raw materials.

    Copper, lots and lots, and even more lots of copper – there really isn’t a substitute for copper, let alone the lithium, and then the suite of around 20 rare earth elements (cobalt, tantalum, nickel, cobalt, manganese, etc.) all required to build the machines, all need to be gotten from somewhere. And that means mining, lots and lots of mining. We need to dig, and this is a big, big dig. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) we need to be seeing an increase in mining of not just 10, 20, or even 50 per cent, but more in the line of somewhere between 200 to 700 per cent%%.

    Holy Mackerel!! That’s a really big time mining operation. An effort on the scale of WW2. When? Where? Will it all start? What ever you do, don’t stop thinking about all the mining.

    Until we figure these things out it just ain’t goin to happen in the time frame expected.

    The fact is that there is hardly any investment in mining going on, let alone the actual mining itself. And then where will the mining take place? China?

    So lets get real. It takes about 15 years to bring a mine on line. And it takes around 500,000 pounds of ore to make one 1000 pound battery for a Tesla or similar EV. It takes tons and tons of copper to make a wind turbine. And it takes tons and tons of copper to get the electricity from a solar farm to the grid.

    Lets get real about all this for once.


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