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Clean Power Only Way To Stop Polluting is to Use Clean Electricity, Study Says

Published on November 25th, 2011 | by Charis Michelsen


Only Way to Stop Greenhouse Gas Emissions is to Use Clean Electricity, Study Finds

November 25th, 2011 by  

Only Way To Stop Polluting is to Use Clean Electricity, Study SaysIs it possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 emissions levels by 2050? Maybe, according to a study done in (of course) California. The study was jointly conducted by consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. (E3) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and focused on using current technology to meet the emissions goals.

The study implies that electricity is the way out of excessive greenhouse gas emissions – specifically, moving away from oil and toward carbon-free electricity generation. Snuller Price, co-author of the study and a partner at E3, explains that “…this study means that our electric utilities will be the central players in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the long term.”

Green Sources for Reduced Emissions

Dr. Jim Williams, lead author of the study and chief scientist at E3, feels that the only way to achieve reduced emissions is with clean electricity:

“Absent dramatic changes in people’s behavior, or an unforeseen breakthrough in new technology, we found that there is only one way to meet the GHG goal” of 80% below 1990 emissions levels by 2050. Meeting the goal requires unprecedented levels of energy efficiency, completely decarbonizing electric generation, and switching almost all fossil fuel use to electricity.”

Of course, transportation in the United States is currently heavily dependent on oil and fossil fuel, and responsible for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. The study takes that into account, calculating how grid infrastructure would need to be changed as well as energy use, CO2 emissions, and cost. Smart EV charging and better vehicle batteries are also necessary for meeting the emissions target, according to Dr. Williams:

“We built a physical representation of infrastructure and the electric grid to get a more realistic picture of emissions reductions. For example, if we have millions of electric cars in California, the timing of when their batteries charge is linked to what kinds of power plants we need on the grid, and other infrastructure we need to maintain reliability.”

We Can Do It! (Probably, But Not Cheaply)

The study authors estimate that the annual cost of reducing emissions to the stated goal (whose goal? No idea) would be approximately $1,200 USD per person compared to a “business as usual” case. (Keep in mind that fluctuating oil prices do affect the “business as usual case” and make it difficult to predict the base line here.)

The clearest message coming out of the study is don’t procrastinate. According to Price: “This study isn’t only about what the world needs to look like in 2050, it’s about the pathway and what we need to do now. We have to improve key technologies this decade before we need them to be widely commercialized in 2020 and beyond.”

To put it as simply as possible, the only way to stop dirty emissions is to start using clean energy and then keep using it. It seems clear and obvious on the surface, but is it worth the potential cost? You tell me, in the comments below.

Source: PR Newswire | Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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About the Author

spent 7 years living in Germany and Japan, studying both languages extensively, doing translation and education with companies like Bosch, Nissan, Fuji Heavy, and others. Charis has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. She also believes that Janeway was the best Star Trek Captain.

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  • Lucy Garcia

    I believe the 80% by 2050 goal comes from NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen among others.
    For all you techies, is there a clean energy form that I can put on a condo, besides low-e windows and insulation? They don’t like solar and I think that might extend to small wind turbines.

    • Anonymous

      How about buying a piece of a community solar farm? You would get the benefits of the panels without having them attached to your home.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s an interesting geothermal conversion case history. These people replaced a propane heating system and air conditioner with an $18,200 geothermal system.

    They give a financial analysis based on the 2009 price of propane at $2.15/gallon even though it had already risen to $3.33/gallon by this last March. Using the lower propane price they save $2,820 a year. That’s a 6.5 year payback and roughly 11% per year.

    Based on more recent propane costs of $3.33/gallon the savings would be $4,370 per year. That makes for a 4.1 year payback and roughly 17.5% per year.


    I do think the $18k price too high, but even overpaying if you’re getting a 11% – 17.5% return should you refuse to install? I think not. How do you get 15%+ returns on investment short of becoming a loan shark and busting kneecaps?

    Borrow the money, pay off the loan in four to seven years, and then enjoy significant savings. Ed is right, when you install geothermal you’ve locked in your main source of heat (or cool) at a fixed price. Those who make their heat with fossil fuels or electricity are almost certainly going to get hurt as prices rise.

    Are there low interest geothermal loans for people with limited incomes? Saving a couple hundred dollars a month can be a major help for a lot of people.

  • Ed

    It seems clear and obvious on the surface, but is it worth the potential cost?

    This is a trick question, right??

    Everyone who installs any energy system from now on will be only hurting themselves if they go for the “less expensive” up front cost of “business as usual” Bob notes a 12% return in six years but after amortizing the initial cost the return will escalate yearly until the hardware needs replacing. The rising cost of fossils will assure that.


    • Charis Michelsen

      It is indeed a trick question! 🙂

      Seriously, though, imagine how different the move toward cleaner energy would be if, for example, we were all driving electric cars and shifting from coal and nuclear power to renewable energy – so much easier than shifting from gas-powered to electric cars. (I blame Texas for this, which is likely politically incorrect of me.)

      PS – I cannot sign in with Facebook, for some reason, which is why the site seems to think I’m a guest.

      • Anonymous

        Texas isn’t the most blame-worthy in my book.

        Texas is a leader in onshore wind and is moving forward with offshore wind. They might even be the first in the US to get towers in the water.

        And they’re starting to get going with solar. As well, Houston is getting a lot of EV charge points in place.

        Now, Texans serving in Congress, that’s likely a different story.

  • Max Kennedy

    Of course it’s worth it. Many of the technologies don’t need to be anywhere as expensive as they are. Ground source heat pumps for example are just fridges in reverse. Why are they $10000+ to install?

    • Anonymous

      Excellent question.

      Actually $10k might not be too bad. I’m seeing reports of people paying far more for a residential geothermal.

      An air to air heat pump might cost $4k or $5k if the duct work is already in place. A 400′ well is likely to be over $5k. (Based on the cost of drilling a water well. $15/foot would be a good price.)

      As installation companies get more experienced and there is more competition prices should come down but I wouldn’t bet there’s much room below $10k.

      $10k is not that bad a price. Subtract the cost of the alternative system (~$4k for an air to air) and then look at the payoff time for the difference. If the geothermal system saves you an average of $200 a month for five months you’re looking at a six year payback. That’s a 12% return on investment.

      A heat pump or furnace/air conditioner might need replacing in 20 years. The geothermal well should be permanent.

      If you need AC in the summer your savings will be greater and payback sooner. If you live in the middle of the country where it gets cold in the
      winter and hot in the summer a geothermal heat pump could be a wise

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