Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Clean Energy Transition Institute’s New Report

Posted on September 26, 2019

SFF is proud to have been an early champion of Eileen V. Quigley’s work in shaping the Clean Energy Transition Institute. Under her leadership, the Institute commissioned a study with Evolved Energy Research to understand how Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington could technically and economically achieve a low-carbon economy over the next three decades. Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest is the first economy-wide analysis to examine decarbonization pathways mapped to the Northwest’s economic and institutional realities.

The analysis—a deep decarbonization pathways study that looked at trade-offs and opportunities to cut carbon emissions 86% below 1990 levels by 2050 in buildings, transportation, and electricity generation—offers a roadmap for decarbonizing the region. It found that dramatic cuts in carbon emissions are possible in the Northwest at modest capital costs that will generate long-term savings for consumers.

Key findings from Meeting the Challenge of Our Time include:

  • A nearly 100% clean electricity grid is needed to most efficiently achieve mid-century climate targets; coal is eliminated from the region’s electricity sector and only a small amount of natural gas remains in 2050 to ensure the grid can reliably deliver power during periods of low renewable generation.
  • Widespread electrification of transportation reduces emissions at the lowest cost. Optimal targets for electrification by 2050 include 100% of passenger (light-duty), 60% of medium-duty and 40% of heavy-duty vehicles by 2050.
  • Sustainable biomass is best reserved for jet and diesel fuel for aviation and freight, which are harder to electrify at this time.
  • Increased grid integration with California will lower cost, potentially reducing the cost of decarbonization by $11.1 billion over the 30-year study period for both the Northwest and California.
  • Emerging technologies economically use excess renewables to help displace fossil fuels and balance demand and supply on the electrical grid. Technologies such as electrolysis, synthetic fuels, and carbon capture will play a growing role after 2040.

The study examined eight cases to test the impacts of different assumptions, such as limited transport electrification, increased transmission between the region and California, and constrained biomass supplies.

The study modeled the annual energy system costs of producing, distributing, and consuming energy and compared today’s energy system costs to a Central Case from 2020 to 2050. The Central Case’s net annual costs vary based on the timing of infrastructure investments, peaking at 16.1% ($9.8 billion) above business as usual in 2038 and decreasing to 8.3% ($6.1 billion) higher than business as usual in 2050, roughly 1% of the region’s total GDP in 2017 (more than $870 billion). Although the study concludes that consumers will see modest increases in energy costs in the near term compared to business as usual, by 2050 energy efficiency, transportation electrification, and eliminating fossil fuel expenses will bring lower energy costs.

To explore the study’s findings, please see the following:

What’s next? How will the study inform decision makers on next steps in addressing the climate crisis?

CET Institute Executive Director Eileen V. Quigley, will be holding convenings this fall to share the study’s results with policymakers, advocates, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and investors with the goal of accelerating implementation of the solutions required to achieve a low-carbon economy in the Northwest and ensuring that the study’s findings translate into action.