Cutting Pollution From U.S. Power Plants Cheaper Than You Think

A Brief History of Global Warming
  • Costs may fall even with significant shift to wind and solar
  • New transmission to provide `interstate highway for electrons'

Cutting global-warming pollution in the U.S. may not be so costly after all.

A shift to wind and solar power and an expanded electric grid would allow the U.S. to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity production by as much as 80 percent without raising power costs, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The results come as President Barack Obama pushes new rules to cut pollution from the power industry, the nation’s single biggest source of emissions, even as Republicans attack the plan as an economic disaster. While the new study didn’t look at those regulations, it found a shift to a mix of renewable- and natural-gas fired power may cut electric costs by about 10 percent in 2030, compared with a more coal-reliant grid.

“What the model suggests is we can get a long way, and wind and solar and natural gas can be a bridge,” co-author Christopher Clack, a physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said in an interview. “There is a path that could be possible to achieve those goals, and it doesn’t necessarily need to drive up costs.”

Energy Storage

The study also suggests the U.S. may make the transition without heavy investment in energy-storage technologies, which are seen by some as essential for helping to smooth out the intermittent flows from wind and solar farms.

Instead, the Nature research, using a computer model to simulate the U.S. electric system in 2030, found a reliable grid can be built using existing technology -- if the country also invests in better transmission lines and other technology to carry power long distances.

Key to the transition would be a national network of high-voltage, direct-current power lines, capable of connecting power supplies in areas with favorable weather to regions with the most demand, according to the study by scientists with the university and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It looks a lot like an interstate highway system for electrons,” said co-author Alexander MacDonald, a recently retired NOAA scientist. “You can pipe the power around in real-time and essentially have electricity that’s the same cost as today.”

New Transmission

Construction of such a grid has run into resistance from utilities wary of spending money for a new transmission system that may give the most benefit to competitors in the renewables industry. Still, a national power overhaul could save U.S. customers $47.2 billion annually, about three times the cost of the new transmission system, according to the study.

The research “provides confidence” that nations can make the pollution cuts they promised last year at an international climate summit in Paris, Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson said in an commentary accompanying the study.

“The study pushes the envelope to show that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost,” said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The goals of the Paris agreement are within reach.”

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