In 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens the health and welfare of Americans. Statistics show that the most prevalent greenhouse gas pollutant is carbon dioxide, accounting for nearly three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions and 82% of US greenhouse emissions. It was found out that by far the largest source of CO2 emissions in the country is fossil fuel-fired power plants—more than all of our driving and flying combined.
To address this, experts and environmentalists suggest using renewable energy sources instead. These sources can be used to produce electricity with fewer environmental impacts. It’s even possible to make electricity from these without producing CO2. The sources are abundant in our environment and available in some capacity nearly everywhere. Some of these include energy from the sun, wind, and thermal energy stored in Earth’s crust.
On the other hand, fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas are not renewable. Once we have extracted all of these sources, they will cease to be available for use as an economically viable energy source. Although they are produced through natural processes, these processes are too slow to replenish the fuels as quickly as humans use them. Thus, these sources will run out sooner or later.
The US’ Clean Power Plan
In 2015, the EPA established the first-ever safeguards limiting carbon pollution from US power plants to protect public health and our climate through the Clean Power Plan. The plan aims to help cut the emissions driving climate change as well as promises to lead the US toward a healthy and sustainable future powered by cleaner energy. It will advance clean energy innovation, development, and deployment and lay the foundation for the long-term strategy needed to tackle the threat of climate change.
While the plan still includes using fossil fuels, experts said that it would make sure that fossil fuel-fired power plants will operate more cleanly and efficiently. According to American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization, the US has experienced a remarkable explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy since the plan was established. Renewable energy grew significantly between 2008 and 2016, which led to increases in wind power. The administration policies and initiatives during the term of former US Pres. Barack Obama played a huge role.
For instance, the Obama administration addressed and removed market barriers to the introduction of these clean energy technologies. They also strongly promoted the research and development of clean energy technologies. The spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy research, development, and demonstration by the US Department of Energy (DOE) from 2008 to 2016 increased from $1.24 billion to $2.07 billion.
However, on October 10, 2017, the Trump administration issued a formal proposal repealing the Clean Power Plan. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt along with powerful oil, coal, and gas companies claimed that the plan overstepped EPA authority and cost industry too much to comply.
90% Clean Power by 2035
For years, many experts have debated how fast the US can push for using clean, renewable energy. Specifically, they are asking how fast we could get to 90% zero-carbon power at no extra cost to consumers. "We're spending too much time stressing about the last 10% and not enough time thinking about the first 90%. So, let's focus on the first 90%,” Ric O'Connell, executive director of GridLab, a clean energy consulting firm, said.
Fortunately, the costs for wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries are rapidly decreasing. According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, the decrease of these prices is happening so fast that the US can reach 90% clean electricity by 2035. By that time, the country will no longer need new fossil fuel power plants. Natural gas consumption is expected to plummet by 70% over time, while existing coal plants retire.
Over the past decade, the cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically. The cost of wind power, for instance, fell by 70% from 2009 to 2019, while the cost of large-scale solar fell close to 90%. The cost of batteries from 2010 to 2019 also dropped close to 90%. "The pace of technology development has typically been underestimated. In my career, all my projections have been conservative,” Amol Phadke, an energy research scientist at University of California-Berkeley, said.
Experts say that the closures of these power plants would reduce economy-wide emissions 27% by 2035 as well as avoid $1.2 trillion in environmental health costs from fossil fuel emissions by 2050. Building a 90% clean electricity system would even be beneficial to the country’s economic growth. It can effectively pull the US out of the COVID-19 recession by supporting more than a half a million new net jobs per year, injecting $1.7 trillion into the economy, and recharging domestic manufacturing.
A recent study issued by the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that 90% clean electricity would decrease US power costs. Under a 90% clean grid, wholesale electricity would cost less than it does today. At the same time, it would cut the country’s economy-wide emissions by 18% by 2030. “To achieve a U.S. share of a global 50% cut will require additional emission reductions in transportation, buildings and industry,” co-author David Wooley, director of the Center for Environment and Public Policy at UC Berkeley, said.
According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, the shift to clean power is also beneficial to public health, especially now that we are in a middle of a pandemic. The findings of the study revealed that a shift to 90% clean power could save as many as 85,000 lives by 2050 by sparing Americans from toxic pollution.
"Climate and environmental impacts fall disproportionately on communities of color and low-income communities. It's always important to be clear about the human cost of fossil energy when it's included in such models, so I was glad to see these costs included,” Patrick Brown, a researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative, said.