Formulating a Sustainable Energy Policy for the United States

A new study prepared for the Civil Society Institute by staff at Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. provide a hopeful scenario for U.S. energy policy which moves away from a future commitment to coal with coal with pollution control technologies and nuclear power to a robust commitment to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Among the take-aways from the study:

  1. It is possible to move from a Business as Usual (BAU) scenario, in which electricity demand grows by 0.9% annually, to a “Transition Scenario” in which demand falls by 0.1% per year, falling to 3,960 TWH in 2050, instead of growing to 5,930 TWh;
  2. Among the assumptions made in the Transition Scenario:
    • Coal-fired generation is eliminated by 2050, whereas it grows from 1,860 to 2,340 TWh – a 26% increase, in the BAU scenario. Oil- and gas-fired steam plants and oil-fired combustion turbines are also retired under this scenario
    • Natural gas-fired generation grows from 1,010 to 1,840 TWh under BAU, while it rises to only 1,230 TWh in the Transition Scenario;
    • Nuclear generation falls 23% below the BAU scenario, whereas it grows under the BAU;
    • In terms of renewable energy generation: wind energy grows from 92 to 189 TWh under BAU, while it grows to 611 TWh in the Transition Scenario; PV generation grows from 4 to 24 TWh under BAU, and it grows to 842 TWh in the Transition Scenario; biomass grows under both scenarios, but more under BAU because of increases in co-firing from coal-fired power plants;
  3. Under the Transition Scenario, power-related carbon dioxide emissions fall by 81% from 2010 levels by 2050, whereas they grow by 28% under BAU;
  4. While sulfur dioxide emissions fall by 40% under BAU initially, but then begin to rise again due to increased use of coal, under the Transition Scenario, sulfur dioxide emissions are virtually eliminated by 2050;
  5. Water consumption drops steadily under the Transition Scenario, while rising under BAU;
  6. 51,000 lives  are saved under a Transition Scenario due to the phase out of coal-fired power plants;
  7. Net costs in the Transition Scenario are $83 billion over the course of the next 40 years; however, additional research is required to ascertain the full economic impacts, including effects on employment. However, the study projected a increase of 3.1 million jobs during the next 40 years;
  8. One challenge under the Transition scenario is to determine how the projected resource mix would operate under different load and generation conditions.

This is a great study for both discussing potential alternative energy futures in the United States, as well as the assumptions that are made in formulating these scenarios. The study contains a very extensively methodological section that could provide fertile ground for discussing the validity of assumptions made by the authors, and how uncertainty should be  factored into policy making. One might also discuss the implications of politics in  effectuating a “transition” to the Transition Scenario. Is there a way to make the transition politically palatable in the face of, for example, likely regional losers?

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