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Is a cleaner grid enough to help the U.S. meet its climate targets?

Despite stalling of Biden’s Build Back Better, decarbonization of U.S. power sector offers hope, Earth Index finds

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At least the grid got cleaner.

As global carbon emissions reached an all-time high, again, in 2019, the U.S. power sector offered the country’s sole glimmer of hope for hitting its climate targets. The rest of the economy released more greenhouse gas rather than less, except for the transportation sector, which cleaned up slightly.

Even that limited progress on clean electricity is perhaps surprising, given that the most recent dataset from a Corporate Knights’ Earth Index report comes from well into the presidency of Donald Trump, who rejected the Paris Agreement and vowed to revitalize coal power. But the president wields limited direct influence over a decentralized power industry. Coal plants kept closing, while renewables hit their stride.

Much has changed since 2019. President Joe Biden ran and won on a clean energy platform. He hasn’t yet been able to pass sweeping climate legislation, but he did declare that by 2030, U.S. emissions would fall as much as 52% from 2005 levels. That’s the goal the Earth Index tracks.

To succeed in less than nine remaining years, the U.S. must double down on clean electricity and convert it into emission reductions elsewhere, by electrifying transportation, buildings and some industrial processes.

Luckily for this effort, renewables have passed an inflection point in economic competitiveness: nearly half of new power plant capacity built in 2022 will be solar, according to federal data. Record numbers of battery plants are getting built to store solar power for nocturnal use. Overall, 79% of new capacity in 2022 will be non-fossil based. Nearly every major utility company pledged to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. But modelling suggests that, without a federal push to close dirty plants and open more clean ones, the U.S. will fall short of its 2030 goal.

With power emissions falling, transportation is now the largest-emitting sector at 29% of U.S. emissions in 2019. The pathway there is fairly straightforward: build more chargers, electrify government and corporate fleets, and mass consumer adoption will follow as prices come down and options increase.

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Electric vehicles trickled into the market in 2019. In 2021, they doubled market share to 4.5%, according to the International Energy Agency. That trend is set to keep growing, as electric offerings proliferate and classic brands like Ford’s F-150 pickup truck and Chevy’s Silverado launch battery-powered models.

Democrats failed to pass Build Back Better legislation, which included $500 billion to accelerate decarbonization. But last year’s infrastructure law directs billions of dollars to public charging networks, to give drivers more options to replenish their batteries around town or on highway corridors. Biden wants half of U.S. new car sales to be electric by 2030.

“The President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help us win the EV race by working with states, labor, and the private sector to deploy a historic nationwide charging network that will make EV charging accessible for more Americans,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

Long-distance trucking will likely need different technologies like hydrogen fuel cells, but electric can work for five million shorter routes in North America, based on industry testing.

Heavy industry looks more daunting. Few low-carbon options are commercially ready for energy-intensive processes like making steel, glass, cement and fertilizer. But steelmakers are already building factories for “green steel,” using cleanly produced hydrogen and electric furnaces. The issue isn’t so much inventing new technologies as scaling them to compete with conventional, carbon-emitting ones.

The agriculture and waste sectors are early in their decarbonization process and haven’t drawn much focus in national policy debates.

Another stubborn area: there’s an estimated 65 million existing homes that would need to switch from burning gas to all-electric.

A clean grid can’t halve national emissions by itself. Success by 2030 depends on how quickly other sectors tap into the transition to clean electricity.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media, a U.S.-based non-profit newsroom chronicling decarbonization.

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