EIA released its 2015 reference case for electricity generation between 2000 and 2040. The upshot: while they expect natural gas and renewables to continue their growth in the U.S.’s overall energy portfolio, coal is still very much in the mix in 2040. From a climate perspective, if their reference projection becomes reality, we easily pass 2C warming by 2100.
Their reference projection “reflects current laws and regulations—but not pending rules, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan“. So it is no surprise that current laws and regulations result in passing the 2C threshold (or the GHG emissions which would actually lead to passing the 2C threshold). The EPA’s Clean Power Plan isn’t in effect yet – and it will take time to analyze changes to actual generation once its final form does take effect.
Figure 1. EIA’s Reference Case analysis and projection of U.S. electricity generation (2000-2040).
The good news is renewables’ share grows during the next 25 years. Again, there’s no surprise there. Nor is it surprising to see natural gas’ share also grow. If you look at the left y-axis, the absolute share of renewables exceeds that of natural gas. The bad news (from a 20th-century climate perspective) is that coal remains 34% of the electricity generation in this scenario. That news is tempered by the fact that in both absolute and percentage terms, coal use is lower during the next 25 years than the last 15 years. The absolute numbers are most frustrating from a climate perspective. In 2040, this scenario projects >1.5 trillion kilowatt hours of coal generation. Absent additional policy measures, that value remains largely unchanged during the next 25 years. How do we address that? Well, beating people over the head with scientific consensus claims hasn’t worked (and won’t in the future either): the American public know what causes global warming, once you get past self-identity question framing. Once you interact with Americans on familiar terms, they’re much more willing to support global warming-related policies than many climate activists want you to believe.
Figure 2. EIA’s renewable generation by type.
The EIA projects wind penetration to continue as it has for the last decade – almost doubling in absolute terms in the next 25 years. We need that deployment and more to make a serious dent in GHG emissions.
Figure 3. EIA’s six cases in their 2015 annual report.
You can see how different assumptions impacts EIA’s 2040 projections of electricity generation in 2040 compared to the 2013 historical case. Don’t hope for high oil prices: renewables constitute more than 1 trillion kilowatt hours in that case, but coal also grows to nearly 2 trillion kWh! Putting dreams aside, I don’t think those coal plants will all be running highly efficient carbon capture and sequestration technologies.
We still need RD&D for multiple technologies. To do that, we need policies that prioritize innovative – and yes, risky – programs and projects. The government is the only institution that can reliably assume that level of risk. If we want to avoid 4C or 6C, we can; we need innovative policies and technologies today to stay below those thresholds.