New Study: 90% Carbon-Free Electricity in the U.S. by 2035

By Thomas Neuburger

To ashes, to dust

But not just yet

A miracle we still might get

—"Zu Asche, Zu Staub" from Babylon Berlin

As President Biden turns the nation's attention to infrastructure, he will inevitably turn our attention to the "climate problem" as well. The discussion following that turn of events will take many shapes and forms, as contributors introduce ideas from a variety of perspectives.

We'll ignore several of those perspectives for a moment and return to them later — for example, the fossil fuel industry's twin perspectives, "We're already doing a lot," and "If you touch our profit, you'll lose your big-screen lifestyle"; also the right-wing propaganda industry's perspective, "If you federalize control of energy, it's communism."

We'll also ignore the scientists' perspective that says, "Scientific recommendations have been made deliberately conservative so neither policy-makers nor the public will become too frightened, and so funding for climate projects won't dry up."

Instead, I want to look at two very basic questions:

• How fast should we ramp down (and kill off) our fossil fuel use?

• How fast can we convert to clean electricity without a rationing regime?

(For more on climate change and rationing, see "Energy Rationing, Conscription and the Coming Climate Crisis.")

Conventional wisdom, meaning what one normally hears from people involved with the UN's IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and from mainstream office-holding Democrats and their ecosystem, is that achieving a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 is a good and reasonable goal.

Can it be done? They assume that it can, mainly because no one in this generation who doesn't want to take responsibility for the world of 2050 thinks that they will have to — by 2050 they'll either be dead or grazing in a well-funded personal pasture.

Quite a number of us, of course — those whose careers and reputations don't depend on Party and corporate approval and largess — know that if we shoot for a 50% reduction in the next generation we'll get no reduction at all, since no reduction will ever have to start in this generation. And if we do that, global warming will be well above 2° C by 2050, and everyone on the planet will know the problem is both here and permanent.

The 2035 Report

It turns out there is reason to hope, however. According to a new publication by UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and GridLab, called the 2035 Report, we can reach a 90% reduction in emissions in electricity generation and transportation without rationing (they don't even mention the word) AND without change in current public policy.

Here's their executive summary:

Global carbon emissions must be halved by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5°C and avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Most existing studies, however, examine 2050 as the year that deep decarbonization of electric power systems can be achieved—a timeline that would also hinder decarbonization of the buildings, industrial, and transportation sectors.
In light of recent trends, these studies present overly conservative estimates of decarbonization potential. Plummeting costs for wind and solar energy have dramatically changed the prospects for rapid, cost-effective expansion of renewable energy. At the same time, battery energy storage has become a viable option for cost-effectively integrating high levels of wind and solar generation into electricity grids.
This report uses the latest renewable energy and battery cost data to demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of achieving 90% clean (carbon-free) electricity in the United States by 2035. Two central cases are simulated using state-of-the-art capacity-expansion and production-cost models: The No New Policy case assumes continuation of current state and federal policies; and the 90% Clean case requires that a 90% clean electricity share is reached by 2035. [emphasis added]

Note the two cases, called "No New Policy" and "90% Clean." They are distinguished as follows:

The United States can achieve 90% clean, carbon-free electricity nationwide by 2035, dependably, at no extra cost to consumers, and without new fossil fuel plants. But without robust policy reforms, most of the potential to reduce emissions and increase jobs will be lost.
On the path to 90% over the next 15 years, we can inject $1.7 trillion into the economy, support a net increase of more than half a million energy sector jobs each year, and reduce economy-wide emissions by 27%. This future also retires all existing coal plants by 2035, reduces natural gas generation by 70%, and prevents up to 85,000 premature deaths by 2050.

The 2035 Report details all of the policy changes needed to reach the full benefits available to us (see pages two and three of this document). The study underlying these conclusions is quite robust. I believe the conclusions are reliable.

Is this outcome realistic? Yes and no. It's realistic in that it can definitely be done. I don't think this is one of those overly conservative (or overly optimistic) scientific conclusions.

It's only unrealistic if you consider that no one in power wants to take apart the fossil fuel industry, carry it all, it and its unearned profit, to the dumpster out back, set it on fire and walk away forever. The fossil fuel industry pays them too well to contemplate that.

Things do change, however, sometimes radically and suddenly. So I guess we'll see. "Miracles wait till the end," says one of my new favorite songs, but they do (sometimes) come.

Here's a version without translation, but with a good sense of how this great song works in context:

And for good measure, here's a concert version with the same performers. Enjoy.


(I've launched a Substack site to greet the post-Trump era, the age in which the aggregated Democratic Party will show what it's made of. You can get more information here and here. If you decide to sign up — it's free — my thanks to you!)