• Corinne Atton

Princeton Net-Zero America Report Identifies Eight Climate Change Priorities For the 2020’s

A recent report from Princeton University Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment—“Net-Zero America – Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts”—presents a roadmap of the transitions that are required to achieve net-zero emissions in the United States.

The report is the culmination of two years of research, and is part of the net-zero America project. The project aims to map transition scenarios to inform U.S. policy and investment decisions around achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The authors used national-level modeling to quantify multiple technological pathways that have the potential to decarbonize the entire U.S. economy. Research is ongoing to quantify the scale and cost of this transition, and to understand how best to address transition challenges, bottlenecks and inhibitors.


Most immediately, the report identifies eight key priorities for the 2020’s:


1. Build societal commitment, investment environment, and delivery capabilities – the report identifies the need for major consumer awareness campaigns and incentives to drive low-carbon energy investment decisions; reform electricity markets to ensure supply reliability; and support incumbent sectors, communities and organizations impacted by transitions.


2. Improve end-use energy productivity and efficiency – reduce building heating and cooling energy use; ensure adoption of the most efficient end-use appliances and consumer devices; and shift transportation from single occupancy to multi-occupancy vehicles, road to train freight, and improve fuel efficiency.


3. Electrify energy demand, especially transportation and buildings – significantly increase the number of battery-electric vehicles and publicly-available EV charging infrastructure; deploy electric heat pumps for space and water heating; and expand automation and controls across electricity distribution networks and end-use devices to unlock flexibility of EV charging, space and water heating loads, and distributed energy resources.


4. Decarbonize and expand electricity – increase U.S. electricity generation and carbon-free share (wind, solar); retire all existing coal-fired power plants; preserve existing nuclear power plants, where safe, and redevelop retiring nuclear plants as new zero-carbon thermal power plants.


5. Prepare for major expansion and transformation of the bioenergy industry – establish biomass collection/transportation infrastructure, and sustainably use residue biomass for energy; prepare for dedicated bioenergy feedstock production; and develop and demonstrate advanced gasification-based bioconversion technologies for fuels production.


6. Build and expand infrastructures: electricity transmission and carbon dioxide transportation/storage – strengthen and expand U.S. long-distance electricity transmission by identifying corridors needed to support wind and solar deployment; strengthen distribution system planning, investment and operations to allow for greater use of flexible demand and distributed energy sources; plan, cite and construct an “interstate CO2 highway system” connecting all regions to carbon dioxide storage basins; finalize national and/or state regulatory conditions, identify sites suitable for carbon dioxide injection, and advance field development planning and permitting.


7. Enhance land sinks and reduce non-carbon dioxide emissions – grow the land sink (natural reservoirs—forestry and agriculture—that accumulate and store carbon to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide); reduce hydrofluorocarbon production and consumption; identify and eliminate sources of methane leakage; improve management of nitric oxide and methane in agriculture; and manage nitric oxide emissions.


8. Innovate to enlarge the net-zero-carbon technology toolkit – innovate to create additional real options for technologies that will be needed post-2030, including: (a) mature, scale-up and make cost/performance improvements in clean-energy technologies, including clean electricity resources; hydrogen production; fuel synthesis from biomass, hydrogen and carbon dioxide; high-yield bioenergy crops; carbon dioxide capture in industrial applications; and direct air capture; and (b) invest in research and technology solutions that reduce network infrastructure challenges including repurpose existing natural gas or oil pipelines for hydrogen or carbon dioxide transport, and increase utilization/transfer capacities of existing electricity transmission.


In short, the work needed, and the time frame we have to do it in, is unprecedented. But also unprecedented is the amount of research and resources that are increasingly being focused on climate change solutions and net zero pathways. There is reason to be optimistic, but no time to waste.


(Image acknowledgement: netzeroamerica.princeton.edu)

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