Utilities lead in US decarbonisation, says ClearPath

19 August 2021

"The easy part is over" for US emission reductions and the country risks a "flatline" to 2050, Washington DC-based think tank ClearPath has warned in a new report. Utility commitments to net-zero and longer operation for nuclear power plants can help avoid the flatline but public policy is also needed, it said.

(Image: ClearPath)

"Over the coming decades the exhaustion of economic coal-to-gas shifting, existing nuclear plant closures, and continued load growth in states without climate targets will lead to shallow decarbonisation," said ClearPath in its report, Clear Path to a Clean Energy Future. It expects carbon dioxide emissions to stop falling after 2025 and remain roughly flat to 2050 at 96% of today's level - even with recently enacted federal incentives and state-level clean energy standards.

However, a total of 51 utilities representing 71% of customer accounts in the USA have set carbon-free or net-zero goals for 2050. ClearPath's modelling shows their efforts could reduce emissions significantly, and although it did not specify the exact saving it said the cumulative effect would avoid the emission of 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

One effect of the commitments by utilities would be to maintain more of the US nuclear fleet, which today amounts to 96 GWe of installed capacity. Utility commitments could maintain 41 GWe of nuclear through to 2050, more than double the 19 GWe in ClearPath's reference scenario based on policy alone. "Maintaining existing nuclear power plants is one of the cheapest ways to meet clean energy goals," said ClearPath, adding that, "Even more [nuclear capacity] would likely be preserved if more utilities established net- zero commitments." To ensure this outcome, "state and federal support is warranted," it said.

Importantly, the net-zero commitments by utilities are not projected to significantly increase the price of electricity. The average retail price in 2050 was projected to be 10.2 cents per kWh, compared with 9.7 cents per kWh in the more polluting scenario.

ClearPath concludes that, "It is increasingly clear that the United States is hitting the edge of shallow decarbonisation opportunities following initial renewable energy development and a large-scale switch from coal to gas since 2005. Natural gas, solar, and wind are the name of the game, and they are the only new technologies expected to develop for the foreseeable future, unless natural gas prices keep going up or dispatchable clean technologies decrease in cost."

ClearPath describes itself as looking "to advance small government and free market reforms that make an impact." It intends to create a series of Clear Path to a Clean Energy Future reports monitoring utility decarbonisation commitments.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News