A self-paying clean energy transition

As Washington works on a major infrastructure deal, meeting emission-reduction goals is becoming more important. Researchers at Princeton University published their “Net Zero America” study last December, offering five potential pathways charting different paces, priorities, and methods we should enact to reverse the damages of climate change.

Between the five pathways, each offers net increases in green employment, air pollution, and public health that will be felt immediately upon implementation. Our climate battle requires a “large-scale mobilization” from financial, political, and social bodies. Although an upfront investment of at least $2.5 trillion to revamp our infrastructure, transportation, and vehicles appears daunting, early decisions will pay off across decades. Accounting for the anticipated growth and demand for electricity, the study suggested this change would come at no additional cost to the current system–expenditure on energy will remain between the 4% to 6% of GDP usually felt.

The report prioritizes three main concepts for the first decade: first, commit to doubling wind and solar generation; second, accelerate the electrification of low carbon technology; and third, push our administration to invest in technology and infrastructure that will ignite a spark beyond 2030. All pathways attempt to reach the same goal of a negative carbon dioxide emissions target. Currently, net emissions are 6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent gasses per year (GtCO2e/y), although altering scenarios of end-use electrification, renewable generation, and biomass technology can bring that number to zero.

Decarbonization strategy E+ behaves as the relative median approach of the group (will we use E+ for the future data). E+ predicts high end-use electrification, rapid declines in the use of petroleum-derived fuels, eliminating coal by 2030, and a full transition of transportation and buildings. For instance, by 2030, electric light-duty vehicles (LDV) would represent 17% of the fleet, before jumping to 96% in 2050. As it currently stands, New York’s pledged electric LDV exceeds the standards of E-, or the less aggressive end-use electrification model, falling just short of the E+ recommendations. A preliminary goal is to make the upfront costs of LDVs closer to gasoline by 2030. New York sales of heavy-, medium-, and light-duty electric vehicles in 2050 should look like 60%, 80%, and 100% respectively. 

calculating Battery-EVs in the light-duty vehicle fleet in millions
New York 2025 0.85 1.09 0.39
New York 2030 2 2.02 0.67

Even due to the high reliability of electricity in the E+ proposal, efficiency standards can help limit the final energy use across industries. In the residential sector, heat pumps and the phasing out of natural gas can contribute to an 85% reliability of electricity by 2050, while in the commercial sector that figure is as great as 90%.

Perhaps most significantly, Net Zero America plans to expand wind and solar generation to 600 GW by 2030, which would supply us with half our electricity. As of 2020, electricity generation from carbon-free sources totaled 37%, but under net-zero paths, it will grow to 70-85% by 2030, and 98-100% by 2050. Each year, wind and solar will grow by 10%.

New analysis shared by Yale Climate Connections provides further detail on clean energy as a public health crisis. Beyond the damages through emissions, air pollution from fossil fuels reportedly kills 8 million people per year, worldwide. Locally, fossil fuels cause 50,000 deaths and $445 billion in economic damages in the U.S. Changes in our energy generation will save 400,000 American lives by 2050 as indicated by the study. Coal-burning and internal combustion engines are the most potent sources of pollution. New York alone can avoid 38,826 premature deaths, led by 14,531 from transportation pollution, 9,518 from coal burning, and 1,663 from fossil fuel production.

A very real financial price tag can also make the transition more palatable–$3.5 trillion. Using the EPA’s value of a statistical life, the dollar amount represents costs paid to avoid premature deaths, missed days of work, school, and health care costs relating to air pollution. New York can save $344.5 billion (second only to California) in avoided monetary damages: $129.2 billion from transportation pollution, $84.4 billion from coal burning, and $14.8 billion from fossil fuel production. Conversely, by saving that same money, the state could afford 124,804 wind turbines (2 MW), 68,892 solar panels (5 MW), or 6,889,185 electric vehicle chargers. 

Cutting pollution offers an additional incentive to finance our clean energy infrastructure. Although the trillions saved are a conceptual data piece, costs from premature deaths could support 28% of the national energy transition. Locally, statewide reductions in air pollution have the greatest implications, potentially replacing 82% of our energy infrastructure through savings. 

With our time frame narrowing, affecting renewable change is imperative. Current government estimates suggest renewable energy will merely double by 2050, far short of the thresholds established by any of the pathways. Considering these changes are self-paying, public and private industries should jump to begin these processes.