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Will the US Choose the Right Road to a New Energy Future?

The United States is currently facing a very unique situation — the first of its kind — as we decide how to upgrade and expand our energy infrastructure. Many are afraid that investing in a new energy system is too expensive and would cost trillions of dollars. The truth is that the investment choices we make today will determine whether we build a resilient, reliable energy system. What we need is a modern system that will maximize economic benefits, put the consumer in control, and utilize innovation and technology all while attaining steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, in 2001, governors and premiers set regional emission reduction targets for the New England states and the Eastern Canadian provinces. Eight northeastern states subsequently adopted emission reduction targets, either through state law, statute, or voluntary goals. These goals, based on widely accepted science, call for reductions around 80 percent by 2050. 

As complicated — and expensive — as it may sound to hit that mark, a clean, affordable energy future is within reach. If we leverage new and emerging clean energy technologies, U.S. consumers can start to enjoy a customer-centered, cost-effective, safe and secure energy system within the next decade.

To pave the path and achieve these goals, we need to change the way we think about our energy system. Our existing energy system operates in outdated ways giving us less control and inadequate protection from the risks of climate change. Because of this, all states have to spend billions of dollars on traditional infrastructure — electric lines, natural gas pipelines, distribution expansions, etc.

The new path toward sustainable clean energy & climate improvement is centered on consumers, homes and businesses. The idea is to give consumers the power to: 

  • Generate electricity from clean, renewable sources
  • Connect to clean, local or on-site electricity supplies (rooftop solar panels, community wind turbines, etc)
  • Plug in our cars and heaters
  • Use more efficient appliances and smart controls at homes and businesses

How do we begin to find our sustainability path? It can be found. For instance, the cost of solar energy fell by 60 percent between 2010 and 2012, and recent studies in Massachusetts for example show that there is huge potential to expand solar PV installation in the state.  If we opt to plug in our cars,  we’ll save about 10 cents per mile and cutting emissions by more than half.

Clean Energy is Affordable and Accessible

Following this new vision for an energy system that replaces fossil fuels with clean, low carbon electricity will lower costs for consumers, while offering new markets for job creation and encouraging greater economic development in communities.

Clean alternatives to fossil fuels are increasingly affordable and available. In the Northeast, from 2001 to 2012, the share of electricity generated by oil and coal generating plants has fallen from 27 percent of all electric generation to less than 3 percent. Use of clean energy resources is up 25 percent since 1990. (See Chart 1 below.)

 

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE, which reflects the “all-in” cost of generating electricity over the life of the plant [cents/kWh], taking into account costs for capital, operations and maintenance, and fuel) has fallen sharply for solar PV in the last few years, and it has dropped for onshore wind energy also. (See Chart 2 below.) Greater efficiency will deliver $19.5 billion in economic benefits and 51.3 million metric tons of avoided GHG emissions in the Northeast alone. Reduced demand region-wide has already cancelled $416 million in infrastructure that had been proposed for New Hampshire and Vermont.

Policy Levers Can Increase Clean Energy Usage

Policies can work to help bolster clean energy commitment and expansion at the state, regional and national levels. More than half of all U.S. states have established Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) or equivalent policies that support increasing amounts of clean power. Requiring utilities to steadily increase purchases of renewable energy provides key financial support for emerging renewable technologies such as wind and solar, which are competing against incumbent generation from fossil fuels that have long benefitted from public subsidies and emit harmful greenhouse gases with minimal cost or penalty. Programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) are designed to lock in lower emissions and deliver further reductions. RGGI states recently agreed to reduce the emissions cap by 45 percent and deliver continuing reductions through 2020. 

Now Is the Time to Embrace Clean Energy

At every level — from government policy, to businesses, to individual customers — energy consumers are facing a turning point. Fossil fuel prices continue to be volatile, storms and outages raise concerns about security and reliability, and there is urgency to either expand or convert existing energy systems to prepare for the future. The Northeast region alone is planning almost five billion dollars in traditional poles-and-wires infrastructure expansion, which customers will pay through their bills for years to come. 

Energy efficiency and clean energy resources are the smart answers now. Embracing and investing in clean sources can provide affordable energy, create a more flexible and secure, customer-centered grid, and put us on the path to the carbon emissions reductions that we need to make by 2050.   In addition, it shifts the balance, and places control back into the hands of the individual; essentially creating the path to sustainability via consumer empowerment. That alone is reason enough to implement these vital initiatives today. 

Jamie Howland leads ENE's Climate & Energy Analysis Center (ENE-CLEAN). His work as a policy analyst focuses on data management on energy markets and emissions trends, buildings and land use issues.  A Connecticut native, Jamie is based in ENE’s Hartford office and brings many years of experience in engineering and consulting to ENE’s energy and emissions data research and reporting.  He previously worked as a design engineer in the medical device industry and as a consultant for Hewlett Packard.  He also served as an intern at Audubon International.  Jamie holds a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School Forestry and Environmental Studies, a Masters of Engineering from Yale, and an MBA and a BS in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Lead image: Green plug via Shutterstock

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