Wednesday’s the day for a strong 50% zero-carbon electricity pledge from the “Three Amigos” — US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. “We find ourselves now at a moment where the alignment in terms of policy goals and focus on clean energy between our three countries is stronger than it has been in decades,” says White House climate adviser Brian Deese.
Meeting at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, the three heads of state are agreeing to have this continent produce 50% of its power by 2025 from cleaner (non-emitting, or zero-carbon) sources, the White House announced Monday. The change will come from strengthening the roles of hydropower, wind, solar, and energy efficiency, and using nuclear plants and carbon capture and storage technologies as appropriate over the interval. It’s been made possible by convergence of views on energy and climate change and resolution/abolition of Canada’s requirement of visas for incoming Mexican nationals.
The current collective zero-carbon power level stands at about 37%. The goal requires a steep increase in clean power and energy efficiency over the next 9 years. Says Deese, “We believe that this is an aggressive goal, but for all three countries one that we believe is achievable continentwide, and it’s supported by domestic policies in all three countries.”
All three countries made Nationally Determined Contributions pledges last year at the UN’s world climate meeting (COP21) in Paris. The United States, now producing about 75% of the total power, must make the greatest contribution in clean power and energy efficiency over the next 9 years.
How can the agreement normalize a currently uneven North American power grid?
The Clean Power Plan, which regulates US fossil-fired power plants, is the major North American impetus toward the emissions cuts pledged in 2015. However, the US Supreme Court delayed its implementation earlier this year.
This state-based low-carbon program for existing stationary generating sources and federal rules on new, modified, and reconstructed stationary sources will help the United States do its part to reach the North American goal. So will tax credits for renewable power plants and any grid improvements, including a stronger focus by all three countries on transmission line infrastructure.
The United States drew approximately 32% of its power last year from non-fossil sources, including nuclear. The US Energy Information Administration has projected that, by 2025, the zero-carbon share of power will climb to 41%. Breaking this figure up, renewables are projected to increase to 23% by 2025, and nuclear power is expected to decrease to 18% as some scheduled and likely decommissionings occur. These figures do not include pledged state and regional actions to decarbonize.
“Just meeting the state RPSs [renewable portfolio standards] will bring a huge amount of renewables into the system,” says Amlan Saha, a policy adviser who analyzes the Clean Power Plan for M.J. Bradley & Associates. Deese says that it will not be necessary for the United States itself to hit the 50% mark to achieve the regional target.
The United States got only 13% of its electricity from non-nuclear zero-carbon sources like wind, solar, and hydropower last year, according to the Energy Information Administration. Nuclear power, a large segment of existing carbon-free electricity in the US, represents about 20% of the nation’s total power mix. However, some US nuclear plants are demanding subsidies and are at risk of shutting down in the face of cheaper natural gas. The administration has reportedly taken that into consideration in devising the goals.
Theoretically, fossil-fueled plants using carbon capture and sequestration could also count toward the 50% target, although that technology is rarely used today, largely untested, and evaluated to be very expensive.
Canada already gets 63% of its electricity from clean power (mainly hydro) and 18% from nuclear. It has the continent’s greenest grid. However, Canada produces less than 600 terawatt-hours of electricity, compared to 4,000 terawatt-hours from the US.
Mexico’s current clean energy numbers are even smaller. It produces about 20% of its power from zero-carbon energy. Officials there have already pledged to reach 35% by 2024. Mexico has the continent’s smallest grid.
Scientific American quotes Clare Demerse of Clean Energy Canada as remarking that Canada stands to win economically from North America’s commitment to green energy:
“Canada has a resource that is hopefully going to be in growing demand on the North American continent. [After a decade of clashing with the United States on TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline,] Now we have a really productive and constructive conversation continentally because the conversation has changed to clean energy.”
Other important developments expected from the summit
- Mexico will join a pledge made earlier this year by the US and Canada to reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector by 40% to 45% from 2012 levels by 2025.
- All three are also expected to reduce short-lived greenhouse gases like black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons.
- New agreements will be signed to make it easier and cheaper to trade and transmit clean energy across the continent than current agreements do.
- Biodiversity support, security issues, and other concerns to the continent will also occupy part of the talks.
Also note that China has recently announced that it will generate 25% of its electricity from wind power by 2030.
Possible effects of the US presidential election
Needless to say, the zero-carbon pledge from President Obama would largely be up to the next US president to fulfill. According to The Hill:
“Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has committed to sweeping clean energy goals, including to have half of the country’s electricity be clean by 2030, while Republican Donald Trump has promised to greatly expand the production and use of fossil fuels and roll back environmental regulations.”
Nongovernment organizations react
Last week, the World Resources Institute, Center for American Progress, and Canadian and Mexican NGOs jointly released a report with recommendations for a North American climate strategy. It presented recommendations for a coordinated climate plan that includes a continent-wide pledge to reduce methane emissions, coordinate leadership in international forums, and consider the cost of carbon in long-term decisionmaking. Says Sam Adams, WRI’s US Director about Wednesday’s announcements:
“Sharing a common vision for the future, these leaders recognize the importance of providing economic stability and greater climate security for the long term.”
From the World Wildlife Fund’s Lou Leonard, Senior Vice President, Climate & Energy:
“There’s a big gap between what leaders pledged in Paris and the emissions cuts needed to fend off the most dire impacts of climate change. The United States needs to continue to drive international cooperation to accelerate emissions reductions and help developing countries leapfrog dirtier pathways. Today’s announcements help move us closer to closing that gap.”
350.org Executive Director May Boeve issued the following statement:
“Let’s be clear: declaring ambitious goals like these, or the ones world governments made in Paris, is not the same as taking real action that scientists say is necessary to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.
The White House can work towards that by building on President Obama’s federal coal moratorium… and halt[ing] all new fossil fuel development on public lands. Taking offshore drilling in the Gulf and the Arctic off the table are essential no-brainers if this White House is serious about delivering action on climate that matches its top-line goals and rhetoric.”
Many will agree with Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, who called the 50% zero-carbon electricity move a “turning point” — “It is heartening to see leaders and countries coming together to find common solutions to shared environmental challenges, and realizing the economic opportunities that partnerships can provide.”