Halfway to Zero: Progress towards a Carbon-Free Power Sector

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Sharply reducing carbon emissions is imperative to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Yet even in the power sector—often viewed as the lynchpin to economy-wide decarbonization, and where low-carbon solutions are increasingly plentiful and cost-effective—the pace and scale of the required transformation can be daunting. A review of historical trends, however, shows the progress the power sector has already made in reducing emissions. Fifteen years ago, many business-as-usual projections anticipated that annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power supply in the United States would reach 3,000 million metric tons (MMT) in 2020. In fact, direct power-sector CO2 emissions in 2020 were 1,450 MMT—roughly 50% below the earlier projections. By this metric, in only 15 years the country’s power sector has gone halfway to zero emissions. Other metrics also evolved differently than projected: total consumer electricity costs (i.e., bills) were 18% lower; costs to human health and the climate were 92% and 52% lower, respectively; and the number of jobs in electricity generation was 29% higher. Economic, technical, and policy factors contributed to this success, including sectoral changes, energy efficiency, wind and solar, continued operations of the nuclear fleet, and coal-to-gas fuel switching.

This historical record demonstrates the ability of technological and policy changes to set the power sector on a dramatically different emissions trajectory. Past success, however, does not trivialize the challenges that remain for further decarbonization in the power sector and beyond. Nor does it offer a specific roadmap for how best to achieve additional power-sector emissions reductions. Numerous challenges confront a zero-emissions pathway, and future strategies will likely differ from those of the past. Many recent studies have assessed how to make further progress in decarbonizing the power sector on the pathway to decarbonizing the economy as a whole. We summarize the core results of those studies, but the primary goal of this report is to highlight the progress that has already been made in reducing power-sector emissions. As the country maps out a plan for further decarbonization, experience from the past 15 years offers two central lessons. First, policy and technology advancement are imperative to achieving significant emissions reductions. Second, our ability to predict the future is limited, and so it will be crucial to adapt as we gain policy experience and as technologies advance in unexpected ways.

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