Professor Tells Northam That Decarbonization by 2050 Is ‘Achievable and Affordable’

Windmills during a orange and blue sunset

A year ago at the Virginia Clean Energy Summit, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a proposal to require the state’s electricity sector to produce net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, a requirement that he has since signed into law. 

How are we doing toward attaining the goal?

On Tuesday, as part of the second annual summit (which is taking place virtually and concludes Wednesday), University of Virginia professor William Shobe gave Northam the first progress report.

Following Northam’s opening remarks, Shobe – who directs the Center for Economic & Policy Studies at UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service and has been at the forefront of environmental research and policymaking for 25 years – outlined how it is feasible for Virginia to decarbonize the state’s economy.

UVA Today caught up with Shobe, a professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, to learn more.

Q. During your presentation at the summit, you said decarbonization by 2050 is “achievable and affordable.” Why do you believe this?

A. Virginia is an interesting case in thinking about how to eliminate carbon emissions for a state. We have a modest potential supply of renewable energy compared to many other states, and yet it turns out that, with current technology, we have more than enough to meet our needs. Add to that our existing nuclear plants, and our non-emitting energy resources outstrip any likely future requirement. So, from a purely technical point of view, we have ample non-fossil fuel resources to meet our energy needs.

William Shobe headshot

Following Gov. Ralph Northam’s opening remarks on Tuesday at the Virginia Clean Energy Summit, UVA professor William Shobe outlined how it is feasible for Virginia to decarbonize the state’s economy. (Contributed photo)

And it is surprisingly affordable. New and improved solar and wind technology have made renewables cheaper than the coal and natural gas alternatives. Even without new policies, we will start to build solar power plants rather than new natural gas plants. The advances in technology have made it cost-effective for Virginia to generate its own energy, rather than import the energy from other places.

The final piece of the puzzle is efficiency. Shifting from fossil fuels to electricity in transportation and for heating and cooling in buildings results in large efficiency gains, which save lots of money. As costs continue to fall, the shift to all-electric buildings and transportation will be all but irresistible.

Q. Without getting too technical, can you tell us a little about the modeling you used?

A. For this modeling exercise, we worked with Evolved Energy Research, a firm specializing in long-run energy system analysis. We factor in current and likely future technology costs, demographics, weather and other factors to evaluate our future energy needs. Then we model the mix of energy resources that can meet these needs, but without any carbon dioxide emissions.

With increased use of renewable energy, you have to be careful to take into account the variability of the resource. For example, every year we have periods of cloudy, windless days, where renewables don’t produce much electricity. At other times they will produce much more than we need. We have to include storage technologies such as batteries, hydrogen and synthetic fuels that smooth out the variability in the supply so it better matches the pattern of how we use electricity.

Planning for the future also has to account for the shift in our patterns of energy use as we electrify cars, trucks, buildings and industrial processes. Converting these uses to electricity has substantial advantages, but the shift in patterns of use will affect the mix of resources we will use to supply the energy.

Q. For those who may be not be that well versed in decarbonization, what are the various economic, health and climate benefits that can be achieved by getting to net carbon zero?

A. If costs continue to fall the way they have recently, shifting from fossil fuels may ultimately be worth doing just for the financial savings alone. But there are other, compelling reasons for doing so.

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Climate change is already beginning to hurt Virginia, and the consequences of rising temperatures are likely to rise quickly. Casting our lot in with the many other governments around the country and the world that have pledged to eliminate their emissions of greenhouse gases makes good policy sense. It is only by cooperating that we can solve the problem of climate change. Virginia’s move to eliminate its emissions will make it that much easier for others to increase the level of their commitment.

But it turns out that some of the greatest gains from reducing our fossil fuel use are to our own health. We have known for a long time that emissions from cars and trucks and from coal and natural gas power plants produce very damaging pollutants that result in lots of negative effects on both health and on worker and agricultural productivity. Even with our current pollution controls, these damages in Virginia alone are even greater than the damages from climate change.

We are currently working to produce good estimates of the true economic savings to health and productivity from reducing fossil emissions. We have reason to believe that these benefits are sufficiently large by themselves to justify much of our efforts at decarbonization.

Q. In your remarks, you discussed “The Four Pillars of Cost-Effective Decarbonization.” Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of them?

A. A large body of research now points to four components that are likely to be part of any cost-effective approach to decarbonization: efficiency in energy use, eliminating fossil fuels from electricity generation, electrifying transportation services and building energy use and, finally, capturing some remaining CO2 emissions and sequestering the carbon in geologic reserves.

Converting cars and buildings to electricity not only eliminates their direct emissions, but also increases efficiency, so there is a double savings. Increased efficiency makes it that much easier to supply the remaining energy needs. Capturing and sequestering some carbon will be necessary because it will be very expensive to eliminate the last, most recalcitrant uses. Fortunately, there are some reasonably affordable options for sequestering carbon, including good forest management, coastal ecosystem enhancement, and, ultimately, capturing CO2 from power plants that burn wood waste and other biomass.

Q. To get to net carbon zero, what specific emissions do we need to reduce, and what are some ways we can go about doing that? You mentioned some “timely adoptions” of electric technologies. What might be some examples?

A. The key is to eliminate fossil fuels from our electricity supply and from transportation and buildings. We need to continue to build out new solar generation, because it is cost-effective today. We need to move aggressively to electric cars and trucks. Building out infrastructure for charging vehicles is a pressing current need. Moving to replace gas-fired boilers and water heaters in homes and offices is another step we should start taking now; it is saves both carbon and money.

But it’s not just about what we can adopt today. It is critically important to begin investing in innovation in renewable energy generation and energy storage technologies. Lower costs in these technologies and in electric transportation plays to Virginia’s advantage. We need to start preparing for the likelihood that hydrogen produced using renewable energy will replace oil and natural gas. This will enhance the value of our renewable resources by pairing them with long-term energy storage. With investments in new knowledge, the state can move more aggressively to take advantage of opportunities to be its own least-cost energy producer.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

A. The transition away from fossil fuels does not happen on its own. We need to invest in enhancing the state’s ability to plan effectively and act efficiently in moving to a cleaner, fossil-free economy. Virginia needs to invest in developing the expertise needed for the energy transition. Without doing so, there is a danger that we will take a piecemeal and inefficient approach to the challenge before us. Investing now in the capacity for both technological innovation and the policy capacity to take advantage of it will pay large dividends.

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