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Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest

By Eileen V. Quigley

Executive Director, Clean Energy Transition Institute

On June 5, 2019 the Clean Energy Transition Institute released Meeting the Challenge of Our Time: Pathways to a Clean Energy Future for the Northwest, the first economy-wide analysis to examine decarbonization pathways mapped to the Northwest’s economic and institutional realities. We commissioned this study with Evolved Energy Research to understand how Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington could technically and economically achieve a low-carbon economy over the next three decades.

The analysis—a deep decarbonization pathways study that looked at trade-offs and opportunities to cut carbon emissions 86% below 1990 levels by 2050 in buildings, transportation, and electricity generation—offers a roadmap for decarbonizing the region. It found that dramatic cuts in carbon emissions are possible in the Northwest at modest capital costs and will generate long-term savings for consumers.

Key findings from Meeting the Challenge of Our Time include:

  • A nearly 100% clean electricity grid is needed to most efficiently achieve mid-century climate targets; coal is eliminated from the region’s electricity sector and only a small amount of natural gas remains in 2050 to ensure the grid can reliably deliver power during periods of low renewable generation.

  • Widespread electrification of transportation reduces emissions at the lowest cost. Optimal targets for electrification by 2050 include 100% of passenger (light-duty), 60% of medium-duty and 40% of heavy-duty vehicles by 2050.

  • Sustainable biomass is best reserved for jet and diesel fuel for aviation and freight, which are harder to electrify at this time.

  • Increased grid integration with California will lower cost, potentially reducing the cost of decarbonization by $11.1 billion over the 30-year study period for both the Northwest and California.

  • Emerging technologies economically use excess renewables to help displace fossil fuels and balance demand and supply on the electrical grid. Technologies such as electrolysis, synthetic fuels, and carbon capture will play a growing role after 2040.

The study examined eight cases to test the impacts of different assumptions, such as limited transport electrification, increased transmission between the region and California, and constrained biomass supplies.

The study modeled the annual energy system costs of producing, distributing, and consuming energy and compared today’s energy system costs and a Central Case from 2020 to 2050. The Central Case’s net annual costs vary based on the timing of infrastructure investments, peaking at 16.1% ($9.8 billion) above business as usual in 2038 and decreasing to 8.3% ($6.1 billion) higher than business as usual in 2050, roughly 1% of the region’s total GDP in 2017 (more than $870 billion).

Although the study concludes that consumers will see modest increases in energy costs in the near term compared to business as usual, by 2050 energy efficiency, transportation electrification, and eliminating fossil fuel expenses will bring lower energy costs.

To explore the study’s findings, please see the following:

Meeting the Challenge of Our Time Full Report

Meeting the Challenge of Our Time Key Findings

Meeting the Challenge of Our Time Executive Summary

Five Decarbonization Strategies

Changes in Energy Supply and Demand from 2020-2050

Illustration of Power-to-X

Eileen V. Quigley is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute, which promotes strategies to achieve deep decarbonization and accelerate the transition from fossil fuel to clean energy, with particular focus on the low-carbon pathways, urban carbon pollution reduction, and clean energy economics.

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