Net zero modeling answers “how to” for policymakers

Both local and state governments continue to pledge commitments to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. While aspirations are high and worthwhile, and even more are in fact needed, the details on how to meet those pledges have been scarce, confusing, and fraught with political hand-wringing. Indeed, the complexity of solving for climate change is enormous. Choosing a path not only involves balancing climate mitigation technologies and strategies in the short-term (2020-2030), but syncing those decisions with real-world, long-term (2030-2050) impacts on the economy, jobs, public health, and quality of life (in the context of two- and four-year political cycles) takes strong leadership and resolve. Here’s where net zero energy modeling can help. With modeling, officials can make policy decisions in an abstracted reality first to understand better how those decisions may impact their communities and the people who live there. This virtual reality shines a light on how choices and tradeoffs interact. This more informed data-backed scenario-planning can ease the anxiety of lawmakers, lower the risk for those decisions, and give policymakers peace of mind to help us move forward.  

One recent study, The Net-Zero America Project, may appeal to lawmakers and sector stakeholders because it gives them the ability to ask and holistically answer: “What net-zero pathway is best for me and my community?” The study was based on state-of-the-art energy modeling that provides five different energy pathways that all result in a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. All five pathways result in a net increase in energy-sector employment, significantly improve public health outcomes, reduce pollution, and with a price tag (based on annual spending on energy) that is comparable or lower (as a percentage of GDP) to what the US is spending today.

What’s unique about this model-based study is that it enables policymakers and constituents to prioritize their unique state and local economies through the lens of employment considerations, capital investment capacity, public health benefits, land use/conservation, and other key considerations. All five scenarios are based on core building blocks for net-zero success: levels of electrification (buildings and vehicles), degree/role of biomass, and penetration levels for variable wind and solar resources. Depending on the chosen degrees of each, the modeling shifts the needs for:

  • energy efficiency,
  • electrification,
  • clean energy sources,
  • bioenergy/zero carbon fuels,
  • carbon dioxide capture/use and storage,
  • reduction of non-carbon dioxide emissions (methane and hydrofluorocarbons), and
  • enhanced land sinks.

Without a doubt, this new modeling and study puts to rest the notion that there’s one silver bullet technology solution to get to a net-zero future. What it does instead is shifts the public debate from “what should we do?” to “which path should we pick?” By doing so, we can overcome historical political obstacles involved with choosing or favoring different technologies. Instead we can know with mathematical certainty through modeling that solving for the enormity of climate change necessitates myriad technologies and strategies to get us to zero including a combination of cheap renewables, balancing resources (e.g. storage), and long duration firm resources such as:

  • advanced nuclear,
  • advanced geothermal,
  • fuel-burning technologies with carbon capture,
  • fuel-burning technologies that don’t emit carbon dioxide (hydrogen or synthetic methane), or
  • low-emitting natural gas with offset negative emissions.

The net-zero formula is no longer a mystery. What remains a mystery is whether officials and stakeholders will act with urgency using the tools they now have to make informed decisions.

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