The 3 Building Blocks for a Decarbonized Power Sector
As part of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. has set goals to achieve a 50-52% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
To lay the foundation for these targets, the Biden Administration’s goal is to create a 100% clean power sector by 2035.
This infographic from the National Public Utilities Council shows why a clean power sector is essential for net-zero emissions and highlights the three building blocks needed to achieve it. This is part 2 of the Road to Net Zero series of infographics.
The State of U.S. Energy Use
Today, fossil fuels like oil and gas provide most of the energy used in the U.S. for transportation, heating, and industrial purposes.
For example, due to the prevalence of gasoline vehicles, petroleum accounts for 90% of the transportation sector’s energy consumption, with electricity making up less than 1% of the total.
Similarly, around 80% of the industrial sector’s energy needs are met with natural gas and petroleum. Meanwhile, the residential and commercial sectors use large amounts of natural gas for their space heating needs, along with electricity for other appliances.
With fossil fuels widespread in the U.S. energy mix, the fastest path to net-zero emissions is to electrify and decarbonize energy use in all sectors. This involves replacing technologies that use fossil fuels with those powered by electricity and a clean grid.
For instance, electric vehicles could transform the transportation sector’s energy consumption and reduce emissions. Additionally, electric heat pumps could replace oil and gas boilers in residential and commercial buildings.
However, for electrification to be effective in reducing emissions, decarbonizing the power sector and generating clean electricity is essential.
The Path to a Decarbonized Power Sector
Decarbonization calls for a transformation of the power sector, from one where fossil fuels generate 60% of total electricity to one dominated by clean energy and backed by an upgraded grid.
There are three foundational building blocks for the road to 100% clean electricity:
#1: Accelerate Clean Energy Deployment
With renewable energy now cheaper than fossil fuels, expanding solar- and wind-powered generation is key to replacing fossil fuels and reaching zero emissions.
According to Princeton University, for net-zero emissions by 2050, the U.S. needs to add more than 50 gigawatts of solar capacity annually from 2022 to 2035. That is significantly higher than the 13 gigawatts installed in 2021.
#2: Support Clean Energy with Grid Expansion
With the U.S. power grid aging, new high-voltage transmission capacity is essential for transporting electricity from remote solar and wind farms to centers of demand.
From 2013 to 2020, U.S. transmission capacity grew by just 1% annually. To align with the net-zero pathway, the pace of expansion needs to more than double through 2030.
Here’s how transmission expansion could affect U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as modeled by Princeton:
|Transmission Expansion Rate||Projected GHG Emissions in 2030||% Change in Emissions vs. 2021|
|1% per year||4.6 billion tonnes||-18%|
|1.5% per year||4.0 billion tonnes||-29%|
|2.3% per year||3.8 billion tonnes||-32%|
Source: Princeton University – Zero Lab
With a 2.3% annual growth in transmission capacity, U.S. GHG emissions could achieve a 32% reduction from the 5.6 billion tonnes emitted in 2021.
#3: Invest in Nuclear Power and Battery Storage
The intermittent nature and low reliability of wind and solar power generation pose a challenge for the energy transition.
Battery storage systems and nuclear power can solve the intermittency problem by supplying clean electricity when wind and solar generation falls.
For example, storage systems can store excess solar power that is produced during sunny periods of the day, and supply it in the evening when solar generation dips. Meanwhile, nuclear power plants can supply electricity around the clock, acting as a clean baseload power source.
Towards a Carbon-free U.S. Economy
New renewable capacity, transmission expansion, and reliable backup sources are key to unlocking a carbon-free power sector.
Together, these three building blocks form the foundation for economy-wide emissions reduction and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Visualized: Carbon Pricing Initiatives in North America
We map out all of the national and subnational carbon pricing initiatives in North America using data from the World Bank.
Visualized: Carbon Pricing Initiatives in North America
Carbon pricing mechanisms are a vital component of an effective emissions reduction strategy. But these initiatives currently cover just 15% of total North American carbon emissions.
To discover which initiatives are currently contributing to this coverage, this graphic sponsored by the National Public Utilities Council maps out all of the national and subnational carbon pricing initiatives across North America using data from the World Bank.
Let’s begin by looking at types of carbon pricing.
Carbon Pricing Explained
Carbon pricing is a market-based policy tool that assigns a cost to carbon emissions, incentivizing reductions through the use of economic signals.
While there are several ways to go about carbon pricing, the most commonly used types of carbon pricing strategies include:
- Emissions Trading Systems (ETS)
ETS establishes a market for trading emissions allowances among companies. A cap on total emissions is set, and all companies receive tradable emission units. Those exceeding their limits can buy allowances from those with a surplus.
- Carbon Taxes
Carbon taxes impose a direct price on carbon emissions. Their goal is to disincentivize carbon-intensive activities, such as burning fossil fuels, by making them financially less attractive.
In 2022, carbon pricing strategies generated $5 billion in the U.S. and $8 billion in Canada. These funds were primarily allocated toward green investments and support for low-income households.
Carbon Pricing Initiatives By Country
The U.S. is currently the only country in North America without a national carbon pricing initiative. Both Canada and Mexico, on the other hand, have implemented federal ETS and carbon tax programs.
Beyond federal initiatives, many regions on the continent have also implemented or are considering their own carbon pricing initiatives. These subnational initiatives are listed in the table below:
|Region||Carbon Pricing Initiative||Status|
|🇨🇦 Alberta, Canada||ETS||Implemented, 2007|
|🇨🇦 British Columbia, Canada||Carbon tax and ETS||Implemented, 2008 and 2016|
|🇨🇦 Manitoba, Canada||Carbon tax and ETS||Under Consideration|
|🇨🇦 New Brunswick, Canada||Carbon tax and ETS||Implemented, 2020 and 2021|
|🇨🇦 Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada||Carbon tax and ETS||Implemented, both 2019|
|🇨🇦 Northwest Territories, Canada||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2019|
|🇨🇦 Nova Scotia, Canada||ETS||Implemented, 2019|
|🇨🇦 Ontario, Canada||ETS||Implemented, 2022|
|🇨🇦 Prince Edward Island, Canada||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2019|
|🇨🇦 Quebec, Canada||ETS||Implemented, 2013|
|🇨🇦 Saskatchewan, Canada||ETS||Implemented, 2019|
|🇺🇸 California, U.S.A.||ETS||Implemented, 2012|
|🇺🇸 Hawaii, U.S.A.||Carbon tax||Under Consideration|
|🇺🇸 Massachusetts, U.S.A.||ETS||Implemented, 2018|
|🇺🇸 New York, U.S.A.||ETS||Under Consideration|
|🇺🇸 North Carolina, U.S.A.||ETS||Under Consideration|
|🇺🇸 Oregon, U.S.A.||ETS||Implemented, 2021|
|🇺🇸 Pennsylvania, U.S.A.||ETS||Under Consideration|
|🇺🇸 Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)*||ETS||Implemented, 2009|
|🇺🇸 Washington, U.S.A.||ETS||Implemented, 2023|
|🇲🇽 Durango, Mexico||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2023|
|🇲🇽 Guanajuato, Mexico||Carbon tax||Scheduled, 2023|
|🇲🇽 Jalisco, Mexico||Carbon tax||Under Consideration|
|🇲🇽 Queretaro, Mexico||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2022|
|🇲🇽 State of Mexico, Mexico||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2022|
|🇲🇽 Yucatan, Mexico||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2022|
|🇲🇽 Zacatecas, Mexico||Carbon tax||Implemented, 2017|
The RGGI was the first mandatory ETS initiative in the U.S. and applies to power plants in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.
Since its inception, emissions in the RGGI region fell by more than 50%—twice as fast as the nation as a whole—and raised nearly $6 billion to invest in local communities.
Are All Carbon Pricing Initiatives Created Equal?
In the landscape of carbon pricing initiatives, one critical factor stands out—the price of carbon itself.
According to The High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, achieving alignment between carbon pricing strategies and the Paris Agreement temperature target requires a price of US$40–80/tCO2 by 2020 and US$50–100/tCO2 by 2030.
Unfortunately, many North American initiatives fall short of these prices, especially in the U.S. and Mexico, where carbon prices reach as low as US$12/tCO2e. Conversely, most Canadian initiatives set a price of US$48/tCO2e.
It’s also important to note that the broader impact of these initiatives depends on a multitude of other factors, including the industries they cover, their flexibility in accommodating changing economic conditions, and the manner in which generated revenue is invested back into sustainable practices.
Within the balance of these various elements lies the potential to steer all industries—including the power sector—toward the necessary emissions reductions.
Learn more about how electric utilities and the power sector can lead on the path toward decarbonization here.
The 30 Largest U.S. Hydropower Plants
Hydropower accounts for one-third of U.S. renewable power generation. Here are the 30 largest U.S. hydropower plants.
The 30 Largest Hydropower Plants in the U.S.
Did you know that the largest power plant in the United States is hydroelectric?
Hydropower is the second-largest source of U.S. renewable electricity generation and the largest source of power in seven different states.
The above infographic from the National Public Utilities Council charts the 30 largest U.S. hydropower plants and shows how droughts are starting to affect hydroelectricity. This is part one of two in the Hydropower Series.
Dam, That’s Large: U.S. Hydropower Plants by Generation
The top 30 hydropower plants account for around 50% of U.S. hydroelectric generation annually.
Hydropower plants are most prevalent in the Northwestern states of Washington and Oregon, jointly hosting 16 of the top 30 plants.
|Plant Name||State||2021 Avg. Net Electricity Generation (MWh)||% of Total Hydropower Generation|
|Robert Moses - Niagara||New York||14,186,130||5%|
|Robert Moses - St. Lawrence||New York||6,906,420||3%|
|Hoover Dam - NV||Nevada||2,044,127||0.7%|
|Hoover Dam - AZ||Arizona||1,713,563||0.6%|
The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington is the country’s largest power plant. It generates over 19.5 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity annually and supplies it to eight states, including parts of Canada. Overall, 10 of the top 30 hydropower plants are in Washington.
The Robert Moses Power Plant is a close second, located around 5 miles downstream from Niagara Falls. Combined with the nearby Lewiston Pump Generation Plant, it is New York’s single-largest source of electricity.
While hydropower is a relatively reliable renewable power source, prolonged dry conditions can put it at risk. That is the case for both the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, which are no longer running at previous capacities.
Running Dry: Water Scarcity and Hydropower
The Southwestern U.S. has been in a “megadrought”—a prolonged drought lasting longer than two decades—since 2000. In fact, it has gotten so severe that the past 22 years mark the region’s driest spell in 1,200 years.
Consequently, many Southwestern reservoirs have below-average storage levels. When these levels fall below a certain threshold, hydropower plants can no longer generate power.
In particular, storage levels are precariously low at Lake Mead (Hoover Dam) and Lake Powell (Glen Canyon Dam), which supply most of Arizona’s hydroelectricity. They are also the two largest reservoirs in the country.
Here’s a look at how filled these reservoirs are as of Dec. 4, 2022:
|Reservoir||Total Storage (acre ft)||Current Storage (acre ft)||% Full|
|Lake Mead |
(Glen Canyon Dam)
To put those figures into perspective, here’s an animation looking at Lake Powell’s surface area changes from 2018 to 2022:
Shrinking water levels at reservoirs threaten the reliability of hydropower and the millions of people that rely on it for electricity. As droughts become more frequent due to climate change, what does the future of hydropower look like?
Find out in Part 2 of the Hydropower Series, where we’ll dive deeper into how droughts are affecting dams and how hydropower fits into the bigger decarbonization picture.
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