Net-zero US economy not difficult or expensive – study

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews economist Jim Williams of the University of San Francisco about his co-authored paper, Carbon-Neutral Pathways for the United States.

Related links:

  1. Carbon‐Neutral Pathways for the United States – by Dr. Jim Williams, et. al.

  3. Decarbonize heavy transport like rail, aviation? Hydrogen might be just what the engineer ordered – video interview with Thomas Kock-Blank of the Rocky Mountain Institute
  4. Decarbonizing the tough stuff – industry, heavy-duty transport – video interview with Laetitia de Villepin, co-author of “Making Mission Possible,” a report from the Energy Transitions Commission
  5. Prioritizing innovations for decarbonizing global energy system – article by International Renewable Energy Association

  6. Managing the energy transition: Pathways to Canada’s net-zero future – anchor story with economist Jason Dion, Canadian Institute for Climate Choices

This interview has been lightly edited.

Markham Hislop: Welcome to another episode of energy talks, the podcast where we discuss global energy issues and trends with experts from around the world. In this episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Jim Williams, a professor at the University of San Francisco and director of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative of the United Nations.

Why don’t we start with an overview of the study and why you and your team decided that one was required?

Jim Williams: We’d been working on de-carbonization of the energy system for a long time, going back more than 15 years to California’s first global warming laws. And at that time I was chief scientist for a consulting company in San Francisco called E3. And we were selected to do the first analysis for what became the scoping plan, which is the state’s blueprint for how to achieve its climate goals.

After working on California policy analysis for several years, we broadened our scope to look at the United States as a whole and indeed the whole world. And so the, you mentioned the deep decarbonization pathways project that initiative brought together energy experts in modellers from the 16 highest emitting countries around the world, including China and India and the European powers and so forth. And the object there was to explore how it would be possible to reach what was then the sort of scientific consensus about the minimum that was necessary to do, which was to keep global warming to two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times.

And so in 2014 and 2015, that group produced a set of analyses showing in each individual country, how that could be done. And I was the overall director of that project. But, in addition, I was the leader of the US team where we did a US study.

And so in 2014 and 15, we put out two reports called deep decarbonization pathways to the United States and then a companion policy. This work was influential. I think it was an important contributor to the Paris Agreement.

There is actually a section of the Paris Agreement that calls on all countries to develop mid-century strategies for deep decarbonization. And I think that was inspired by the work of the DDPP but what happened after that was a growing scientific consensus that two degrees C was not a sufficient goal and that really to avoid the worst potential damages from climate change, the world should try very hard to keep warming below 1.5 degrees C.

A widely read report from the IPPC in 2018 highlighted the scientific evidence for that, and also produced a lot of analysis, showing that to achieve the 1.5 degrees C limit that global emissions would have to reach net-zero by mid-century and many jurisdictions have adopted that.

And that is, you know, a stated goal now with the incoming Biden administration. So that was our motivation in doing this analysis.

Markham Hislop: Let’s talk about the four basic strategies outlined in your study, and those would be energy efficiency, decarbonized electricity, electrification, and carbon capture.

So energy efficiency first, and I guess it gets us back to Amory Lovins’ megawatt, the idea that the watt that you save is the one you don’t have to produce it’s the most efficient way to reduce energy use.

Is there any particular approach to energy efficiency that you took in your study?

Jim Williams: Well, yes. I mean, you could see all of our four basic strategies as being essentially physics and chemistry, and if you do your sums right, then you can get to net zero.

Efficiency is a combination of what people conventionally think of as efficiency measures, better refrigerators, better air conditioners and that sort of thing. But it’s also a by-product of one of the other key steps, which is electrification because it turns out that for many important energy-using technologies that electricity is a thermodynamically superior mode.

So in other words, your gasoline-powered car only extracts about 20% of the energy in the gasoline to move you forward. Whereas your electric vehicle is, is three or four times more efficient than that. That’s just one example. So by electrifying, you also gain substantial energy efficiency benefits.

Markham Hislop: I’ve often argued in columns that the energy transition we’re in now started late 20th century. I think it would be a reasonable date. You had to stick a date on it, and that energy transitions like technology adoption curves, you know, the 21st, 20 years you spend those technologies are maturing and getting to the point where they’re economic and ready to displace older technologies.

And it seems like the 2020s is that decade, the decade of disruption. And I take a look at your four basic strategies and the first three for sure appear that the technologies, many of them are ready for that. Carbon capture would be the exception, I think.

Would you agree with that?

Jim Williams: Well yes. And fortunately, the timing in which carbon capture is needed is not as eminent as it is for the other three strategies of electricity – decarbonization of electricity, electrification, and energy efficiency – for those things, as you say, we have off the shelf technologies that are either already sort of on the downhill slope from market option, such as solar and wind or are very near the crest of the hill already, such as electric vehicles and electric vehicle batteries.

With carbon capture, the time when that is going to be needed at a mass scale according to our analysis is probably not going to be for at least another 15 years. So in other words, if the US does what’s needed in the near term, I’d say over the next 10 years on electrification and on decarbonizing electricity, dealing with some of the more complex issues around fuels and difficult to decarbonize end uses. And these are the ones where carbon capture is a necessary technology.

There are 10 or 15 years for us to do research and development, to pilot, to have examples, to learn from, to see what the market has to say about the most competitive options. So I agree with you, it’s not ready off the shelf and right now for many of its applications, but we have time to get there.

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about the nine pathways to net zero. And in your study, you’ve got nine scenarios and let’s go through them one by one, and just briefly chat about them. So can we start with the reference case, please?

Dr. Jim Williams: Sure. So you need to have something to compare a scenario to. So our comparison is based on a business as usual case that is the long-term energy forecast of the US Department of Energy. And it’s probably the best known such case in the world. It’s extremely, well-vetted, it’s put together by hundreds of competent experts in the department of energy.

And so we just said, let’s take the US DOE annual energy outlook forecast out to mid-century for population and GDP and the energy services that the economy demands and say, can we achieve the same kind of result in terms of energy services with a decarbonized system?

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about the second scenario, which is the central one, which is described as the least cost carbon-neutral pathway. Can you tell us about that please?

Jim Williams: For all of our net-zero pathways, we follow the same emissions trajectory, which is a straight line from 2020 to net-zero in 2050. And so again, this is an effort to do apples and apples comparisons. So we built different scenarios that would get to the same objective and compare those to that DOE referenced case.

And so one of our key questions is how can you most cost-effectively decarbonize to the point of reaching net-zero by mid-century? And that is what the central cases, it has all the options for decarbonization available. Whereas in some other cases, we take some of the options off the table to see what would happen.

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about the third one, which is the “central low fossil fuel price.” And this one is interesting, I guess, when you were in an essentially market-based system and let’s say coal, for instance, prices drop really low or natural gas prices are very low and that makes them attractive for power-generating companies to continue using them.

Then what does that mean for your path decarbonization pathways? I assume that that’s the approach you were taking.

Dr. Jim Williams: Yes. There were a couple of kinds of uncertainties that we wanted to look at. I mean, this is a long-term perspective right out to midcentury. And obviously, there’ll be things that can’t be predicted on the technology development front, on the cost front, on the social preferences front.

And so we wanted to do as much as we could to sort of explore those possibilities and see what it would mean for this goal. Two of our scenarios, the low fuel price and the low technology costs are basically cost-sensitivities around the central case.

If oil prices, in particular, are very low going forward what does our model, which is a cost optimizing model say, is going to happen compared to our central case where we use the mid-range forecast to the DOE, we use the low end of their forecast.

And what we found was that this scenario ends up having more fossil fuel use than the central case. It has the most of any of our cases, in fact, because if the cost of fossil fuels is low enough, then you can afford basically to spend more on getting the carbon out of the system through carbon capture and storage, through negative emissions technologies and so forth, if it’s cheap enough.

Even so, as we’re saying that in that case with the most fossil fuel, there’s still only about 25% of the current level of fossil fuel use. There is no coal at all. It’s just simply too costly to try to decarbonize coal uses.

But there’s a substantial amount of residual natural gas and, and petroleum used largely for feedstocks and people who think about this casually probably aren’t aware of how much of our energy input actually goes to creating plastics and all kinds of consumer goods. So we still need a source of that.

So that’s that outcome the low technology is sort of cost is looking at it as the other sensitivity in it saying, what if wind and solar and, and vehicle batteries are even cheaper than we than the forecast today say. And so that produces a result that goes in the other direction: less and less fossil fuel use over time and more and more of the clean technologies.

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about the fourth scenario, which is low renewables costs. And this is very interesting to me because I interviewed Tony Seba back in November. And he had just released a study that asked the question, what if wind solar and batteries really disrupt the electricity system in a bigger way than people are expecting because the cost drops so low, what does that do?

His argument is that just like cheap petroleum and the internal combustion engine transformed the economy beginning in the 1920s, that cheap electricity and storage will do the same thing in the 2020s.

Did you find something similar to that? What were your results in that scenario?

Jim Williams: I guess we’d say that we already found it in our main case. In other words, the reason the central cases, our lowest cost case with about 90% variable wind and solar generation. And it is because it is already disrupted that future. And this is using very mainstream costs forecast trajectories for those though you have to change the way operations are done in the electricity system a little bit – for example, pay to have more reserve power plants online when, when they’re required for, it ends up pencilling out.

It’s still the cheapest to have a very high renewable system. And so the low renewable cost side of that sensitivity produced an incremental change, but we’d already seen sort of the disruptive change earlier on.

We believe it’s already upon us.

Markham Hislop: Let’s talk about the next one number five, which is the low land scenario. And I’m very curious about this because there have been debates raging on my social media feeds for a while now between skeptics of renewable energy who say they just take up too much land, too many wind turbines and solar farms take up too much space, and that makes them impractical.

What did you find?

Jim Williams: Well, I don’t give too much credence to that argument, but we are aware that there’s a history of local opposition to the siting of different kinds of facilities, both wind and solar plants and transmission lines. And in the United States, a major transmission line is something that happens about once a decade. It’s not a common phenomenon.

And so to sort of test what would happen if we could only build half the amount of wind and solar, or have half the land area for it available and have half the available transmission. We built a scenario to test that case and the result was that in some parts of the country nuclear began to be adopted by the model as the next available option.

That’s especially in areas like the Southeast United States that don’t have onshore wind in their region, that don’t have very good offshore wind in contrast to say the Northwest or the Northeast. And if they were not able to build transmission to the wind build in the Midwest your windy birthplace, Markham if they’re not able to access that, then their next best bet was to build more nuclear. And so we actually have rising nuclear in those scenarios. So there’s a kind of intuitive or unexpected outcome of restricting land use that, that some people might not, might not have thought about.

Markham Hislop: That’s interesting. Now, what about the late electrification scenario? The slow consumer uptake of electric technologies given that electric seems to be either is, or soon will be the low-cost option that would seem to argue for a quicker uptake?

Dr. Jim Williams: Well I agree, but I think the question is what if, right, so we’re trying to make our analysis robust by exploring things that would tend to make it more difficult to accomplish reaching that zero. And so one of the questions is not so much, will there be upfront cost parity between EVs and their ICE (internal combustion engine) counterparts, but when will it happen?

And let’s say it happens later rather than earlier. And we don’t reach the benchmark levels of our central case in terms of about 50% of new sales being EVs by 2030. If we don’t reach that, then what happens? Well, you can still stay on the same emissions trajectory, the straight line to net zero in mid-century. But you have to do other things. And, basically all of our cases where we limit our options, we found that you could reach the outcome, but you have to use other resources and you end up paying more money.

And so in this case, it’s quite, counter-intuitive, you actually have to build more electricity generation, renewable generation for an unexpected reason, which is since you haven’t electrified your end uses, you’re still using fuels. You can’t burn fossil fuels outright. And so you have to provide carbon-neutral fuels and a big source of that is electrically derived fuels that start with electrolysis producing hydrogen from renewable generation.

And you actually need to do more of that in a case where people are slower to purchase an EV than the next time they need to buy a car.

Markham Hislop: What role does hydrogen as a rule play? Because I didn’t see it mentioned very often, but it’s kind of all the rage right now. It’s the “It” low carbon fuel.

Dr. Jim Williams: Well, it is important. It’s important in all of our scenarios, but it might be a little hidden in terms of its end use because something like 10 to 20% of the hydrogen that gets produced ends up being used as hydrogen per se.

So for example, in heavy-duty, long-distance freight, we think hydrogen fuel cells are a viable option. And this is something again that won’t need to be decided until the 2030s. So we have time to do research and develop and to explore hydrogen uses.

But the larger use of hydrogen is as an input to the synthesis of designer hydrocarbons, both for things like jet fuel and for feedstocks. So hydrogen is very important but more as a feedstock itself if you will, for chemical synthesis than for its outright use.

And it has I think probably why you’re seeing hydrogen as an “It” thing is that people have come to realize that if you have a high renewable system, there’s going to be times when you have excess generation, you don’t want to just waste that generation. And hydrogen is a very sort of valuable economic product that you can use with your renewable generation when there’s no other demand.

Markham Hislop: What about the low demand scenario, which is number seven, at high conservation resulting in reduced demand for energy services?

Dr. Jim Williams: Well this was to explore the position of many people who say we’re just too wasteful of our resources, of energy. We need to change our lifestyle. We need to walk more be vegetarians you know, wear sweaters, turn down the thermostat, and I’ve got nothing against any of those positions. I think those are you know, great kind of you know aspirations for a more livable society.

But in general, we’ve tried to maintain the comparability of our studies by saying we’re going to decarbonize the same energy services as the DOE’s long-term forecast, the base case. And so we, haven’t generally done things where people are voluntarily conserving, for one thing, it’s very hard to measure that economically, it’s not an easy calculation to do. What is the value of you walking to work instead of driving there to you?

So we don’t generally do that, but we thought we would do one scenario that explores what that would mean. And it’s kind of, this was a pretty intuitive one.

We need to build less stuff, you know, need as many wind farms and solar farms and transmission lines and EVs and all that stuff. If people are basically demanding 20 or 30% less which is what we explored than they do today in comparable situations because they have chosen to conserve. So fly less, drive less and so forth. It will save land as well as infrastructure costs. We can say that for sure, but it has this challenge of being a behaviour change.

And we don’t dive into the question of how possible that is.

Markham Hislop: What about the eighth case, the scenario, the 100 percent renewable primary energy?

Dr. Jim Williams: Well there are a couple of reasons for getting into that. One is there are people who say we should have an all-renewable future. We shouldn’t use any fossil fuels at all. We shouldn’t use nuclear power at all.

And so we actually explored a case that does that. It retired all the nuclear plants by mid-century. There’s no fossil in it whatsoever.

And there’s the second reason we did it is that there’s been something of a raging debate in the scholarly world about, can you reliably operate a hundred percent renewable system? So we thought we would take our model and go play in that sandbox a little bit.

And what we found is that yes, you can have an energy system that’s based on 100 percent on renewables. You can operate an electricity system, that’s based on a hundred percent on renewables, but some of the results were quite counterintuitive.

And one maybe obvious one is that you need more land to build these renewable facilities, more transmission and so forth. What’s not so obvious is that you still need carbon capture, even in those scenarios, because you need carbon to make hydrocarbons with unless we’re also saying that society is not going to be making, you know consumer goods that use hydrocarbon feedstocks, you have to have it somewhere.

And so, even though it’s not carbon capture with storage or sequence duration, it is still carbon capture with utilization, even in the hundred percent renewable case.

Markham Hislop: What about the last one, which is the net negative scenario?

Dr. Jim Williams: Well there are quite a few scientists, the most well-known of whom is probably Jim Hanson, the former NASA climate scientist, who has argued in the scholarly literature for quite a long time that even the 1.5 degrees C limit on global warming above pre-industrial is not sufficient to protect us from the most severe consequences of climate change. Hansen argued that we’re already, of course, at 1.1 degrees C, right? So it’s going to go up before it comes back down.

But he argued basically that to get out of the danger window as fast as possible that the world needs to get back to a CO2 level of 350 parts per million, by the end of the century, it’s currently over 410. And so it’s a considerable drawdown of CO2. And so we basically pose the question of how would you make the energy system, not a problem, but a part of the solution in terms of an atmospheric drawdown.

So not just sort of stabilizing the atmosphere, but actively turning the energy system into a pump that is taking CO2 out. And so we built that scenario that reaches negative 500 million tons of CO2 from the US energy and industry system by 2050.

And the interesting result for that one is it wasn’t much more costly than our central case. The central case was 0.4% of GDP in 2050, the minus 500 million ton case was 0.6% of GDP net costs. And you know, from a resource standpoint and it involved basically incrementally more of the stuff that you’re doing already to get to net zero, but it’s not like a quantum difference. It doesn’t require any vast breakthrough technologies.

Markham Hislop: So that’s all of the scenarios. And since you brought up the issue of costs, I was surprised that the cost of doing any of these pathways is not that high. When I say that high. I mean, you’re talking about, you know, percentage of one, you know, one basis, point of a GDP, or maybe a little bit more is that from
your point of view an acceptable cost is it a high cost? What’s your take?

Dr. Jim Williams: I’ll put it in the context of what the US has spent historically for energy. And, so we’re talking about an energy system that currently costs the US about one and a half-trillion dollars a year. That’s around 5% or 6% of US GDP. That’s at the low end of what it’s been historically, if we look out the past 50 years, it’s gotten over 10% during periods of oil price shock.

The dependency on oil in particular historically has been a real problem for the US economy and the global economy. It is very destabilizing as I’m sure, I’m sure you in Canada know but what we’re seeing going forward with the evolution of the US toward being a service economy and an information economy, and moving away from being an energy-intensive economy was that the forecast of the DOE is for a long-term continued drop in the share of GDP that goes to energy.

And so there that reference case is about 4% of GDP by mid-century. And so our central case adds 0.4% to that. And so that’s still below anything that we’ve historically paid for energy over the last 50 years. And so in that context, it seems quite affordable.

It’s also, I want to point out, it’s not like we’re talking about taxing people, or, you know, you put money in the kitty to do this. It is not that felt by the average consumer, it comes out in the cost of your vehicle or the cost of your electricity, which have many other forces acting on them as well.

And so, from our perspective, you know, the only question that we were really setting out to ask about the economics is, is it affordable? Is the capital available for the necessary investment and in the answers to those are resounding yes, that economics is not the problem of a low carbon transition.

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about the eight actions that need to be taken before 2030 to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. And the first one is increased solar and wind capacity three and a half times to 500 gigawatts. And given where the US is today, is that achievable?

Dr. Jim Williams: Yes. So we expect to see incremental improvements in the technology, especially offshore wind. The biggest question of that sort is basically how fast offshore wind costs come down and how rapidly and what scale they can be developed in places like the Northeastern United States.

Otherwise, I would say the main challenge for solar and wind isn’t technological innovation, but institutional innovation: can we do effective planning and citing of renewables and transmission on a much greater scale and pace than present? Can we develop wholesale electricity markets that provide the right framework for a high renewable system in which almost all the costs are fixed capital costs rather than variable costs, which is the way today’s system is designed?

Those sorts of questions are the issues of, remember we’re not forecasting this we’re backcasting. And we’re saying, if we need, if we want to be on this straight-line path, this is where we need to get to, we don’t see it being a cost barrier. We don’t see it being a technical barrier. We see it as being a set of institutional challenges that need to be overcome.

Markham Hislop: What role that if any did rooftop solar, microgrids, virtual power plants, those kinds of technologies play in your scenario development.

Dr. Jim Williams: Well, at the scale we work at, which is 16 regions of the United States not very much because we’re looking for the lowest cost options. We assume sort of conventional levels of rooftop in the way we estimate energy demand. That is part of the equation for what’s behind the customer’s meter. But other than that, these are not high distributed generation scenarios.

Some of the work our team has done, for example, the recent study of net-zero in Massachusetts, we did delve down into that more, I’ll just give a shout out to the DG and microgrid folks in the sense that it’s not really part of our modelling here or our story at this scale, but they’ve done a lot to sort of popularizing solar through, you know, programs like California dating back to governor Schwarzenegger and the million solar roofs that has done a lot to help transform the market for these things. So they’re important developments from a societal standpoint, they’re not central to our cases.

Markham Hislop: Let’s talk about the second action, which is to eliminate most electricity generation from coal. If I remember correctly, coal is still 25 to 30% of total US power. Is that correct?

Dr. Jim Williams: It is, but it’s dropping fast. And so this is not a technology question at all. It’s about the policies to facilitate the already ongoing transition from coal to gas. And that hasn’t really been a policy question. It’s just been driven by market dynamics. Gas is cheap and it’s cleaner.

And so it’s been a really obvious move in the electricity sector, independent of policy. But the question now is just to bring this to a rapid conclusion because that’s the single item that would make the biggest impact on emissions in the short term is retirement. And so this is a question of changing the merit order for electricity dispatch from coal generation to gas generation.

And that’s the policy and regulatory matter, not a technological one, it involves no loss at all of reliability and probably no appreciable added cost.

The real question is the social and political-economic one how to facilitate an equitable transition for the affected communities that is a big issue in the United States. And that is something that the new administration has highlighted actually as a priority. And we would agree with that from our perspective.

Markham Hislop: Let’s talk about number three, the maintain current natural gas generating capacity for reliability. From what I can understand here, gas plays a fairly big role in your scenarios out to 2050.

Dr. Jim Williams: It does. Now we do need to distinguish between capacity and energy here. So what is happening in the electricity system as the penetration of renewables increases and in all of our cases, the lowest level of wind and solar generation is 80%. And it goes up from there still on, windless days and sunless days, you need ways of balancing the system to maintain reliability and batteries have a role, but it’s really just moving power diagonally over the course of 24 hours beyond that as a very uneconomic option.

So the most economic option is to maintain thermal generation and specifically gas generation on the system. And the level that’s needed given the, you know, what we calculate for a generation requirements in the future is a fleet that’s basically about the same size, or even a little bit larger than the one we have in present, to provide that reliable capacity on the days that your renewables aren’t providing it, and terms of technical challenges.

I think the big manufacturers like Siemens and GE and we’re selling all have been looking at what happens to gas plants that particularly combined cycle plants, they’re not being operated on a more or less baseload but constantly being ramped to accompany the fast ramp of renewable resources over the course of days our hours.

And I think we don’t really know yet how that’s going to affect equipment lifetimes. I’m sure that there are engineering solutions for any problems that might creep up that probably haven’t been seized yet because there wasn’t an economic incentive, but in the world we’re looking at, there will be economic incentives and I’m sure those engineering firms are going to be all over them.

Markham Hislop: Now, the fourth action is interesting because it’s increased zero-emission vehicle sales to 50% of new vehicle sales by 2030. I think they’re down around two or 3%, maybe 4% in the US currently that’s a big ramp up, but at the same time, this may be the one industry that is really ready for the challenge

Jim Williams: Agreed. Now, as we said earlier to investigate the possibility this wouldn’t happen, we did develop a whole scenario around slower electrification rates, but a widely believed figure of merit for first cost parody between EVs and ICE is a hundred dollars per kilowatt-hour for a battery cost.

If GM didn’t believe that we were going to reach that point pretty soon I don’t think they would have come out and said that they’re going all-electric by 2035. There’s a lot of confidence in both the battery industry and the industry that this is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. And at that point, this adoption is going to be on the downhill slope and is going to take itself, you know take care of itself. We might need a little policy push to keep building the market until that happens.

Markham Hislop: Listeners can check out my interview with Dr. James Frith, who’s the head of store energy storage for Bloomberg new energy finance. That will be in mid-January where he talked about achieving a hundred dollars per kilowatt-hour for battery packs by 2023. And by 2030, the cost would be $58. And during the 2030s would likely fall to 20 or $30, which makes EVs significantly lower in cost than internal combustion engine cars.

So just a little context there for anyone who hasn’t seen that interview yet. Well, let’s talk about action number five, which is increased sales share of building heat pumps and the existing stock of buildings and retrofitting them to use less energy. That’s a pretty big challenge.

Dr. Jim Williams: It is. So there are a couple of challenges with heat pumps. One is cold weather, heat pumps, but this is an area where there’s been a lot of technological progress in recent years. If you haven’t checked out the Mitsubishi hyper heat mini-split it operates without a backup system down to minus 15 Fahrenheit. And that may not be so impressive to your friends on the Canadian Plains, but for most of the United States, that’s viable now.

There are, parts of the country that you know, would not be first adopters up in the North, or you’d certainly need some kind of backup system to go with it, but this is an ongoing rapid development. And I think it’s going to continue, but there are other parts of the country where it’s already a no-brainer to go with the pumps like Florida, where have AC in the summer, they have electric baseboards in the winter.

Florida is actually a winter peaking state from an electricity standpoint, astonishingly, and it is an absolute no-brainer economically that the next time you need to replace either your air conditioning or your baseboard, you just do a heat pump for both purposes.

You win already with current economics on that, as you said, the real challenge in getting to something like 50% sales of heat pumps by 2030 is the retrofit because that’s the majority of the market. And we’re only building, you know, a few percent of that is for new buildings. The rest of it is for systems that need to be replaced in existing buildings.

So I think the area of innovation that’s going to be needed, and the policies that are going to be needed are going to be how to match the heat pump technology to many, many different building types and designs, you know, urban skyscrapers you know, stand-alone suburban houses legacy heating systems, all different varieties. That’s where we need the benefits of scale and standardization.

If everything is a custom job, it’s not going to work so well. If there are, is a sort of the right kind of support and innovation, then this will become an easier retrofit process.

Markham Hislop: Let’s talk about number six, all new buildings and appliances meet strict energy efficiency goals.

Dr. Jim Williams: Well, what’s needed here isn’t anything that’s revolutionary. It’s more that the best available current technology for a wide range of appliances and building technologies be adopted.

So it’s well-known that there has been an adoption challenge for energy efficiency. You mentioned the awareness of the consumer first price bias. That is even if it’s a lower lifecycle cost, people don’t want to pay more upfront for it. There’s the owner versus renter problem. There are a lot of institutional challenges to energy efficiency.

So here again, I don’t think it’s that we need to call for total building shell retrofits, we do need to plug the leaks. We do need better windows. We do need better appliances and a transition to universal LEDs and so forth. And those are things that I think liven themselves to innovative policy, for example, like, like Google’s Dandelion offshoot that created an on-bill financing option for geothermal heat pumps.

But something like on-bill financing, mortgage financing, those kinds of things can really help with the energy efficiency uptake.

Markham Hislop: Let’s talk about number seven, which is research and development for carbon capture sequestration, and carbon-neutral fuels. And I would, this one is the carbon-neutral fuels, in particular, caught my eye because I saw a press release from Boeing the other day that said that they had committed to be using a hundred percent sustainable fuels and was maybe a decade or 15 years something. Almost within your timeframe.

Dr. Jim Williams: It is. And, what we say about fuels in our paper is that there’s a lot of pathways that are possible. They’re, basically three sources of fuels. One is biomass energy. Another one is electricity, as I mentioned earlier, where you produce hydrogen and then produce designer fuels from that through processes like Fisher tropes and the third is fossil fuels themselves.

There’s a complex relationship between fuel production electricity production and carbon capture among these. And since these are not required in bulk until the middle 2030s at the earliest in order to stay on the straight-line reduction path we have time to sort of figure it out, do our research, do our pilot projects to be able to compare and contrast. And I think some winners are likely to emerge by that time.

I think one interesting thing about this is that the areas are really a strange mix of old and new Fisher trope piping gases around the country, drilling into salt domes injecting CO2 into saline. We’ve been doing this for decades, it’s really a question of cost and scale. And so the fact that even like the mine capture of that’s used for carbon capture, these are really old technologies that I think if there was an economic incentive, we would see them get a real boost.

But we have time to do that.

Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about the final action needed by 2030, which is to build electricity, transmission and pipelines for carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas.

Dr. Jim Williams: Well I’ll focus on the electricity transmission side. This is again, sort of an institutional policy issue rather than a technology or cost issue.

And I’ll just put it this way. South Korea has announced a plan to develop 8.5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. And they are already in the process of doing a high-voltage offshore backbone in order to link up all of that wind.

And in the US you know, there’s already a permitted transmission line linking Canadian hydro to New England, but the Sierra Club has just sued to stop it.  In our modelling, it is going to be very necessary to have that link, to be able to do the balancing of offshore wind resources.

And so, you know, where do we stand? What are the trade-offs that we’re going to make? I think that’s the question here about these things.

Markham Hislop: Now, Jim, we’ve covered a lot of ground during this interview. So let’s wrap this up by asking the question who will be using your study and the pathways that you’ve developed, my first guess would be policymakers.

Dr. Jim Williams: Well, we hope policymakers do. I mean, that’s, that’s part of our purpose here is I feel like the new American administration has signalled a 180-degree turnaround on its climate and clean energy policy. But turning those policy aspirations, which I think are widely seen as very laudable here in the United States, turning them into actual strategies and implementable policies is the trick.

And it’s really important to have a rigorous analysis that is not just sort of wishful thinking or whatever conventional wisdom says is a thing to do, but actually can be demonstrated to work. And so we’re hoping that our work will be included you know, in that category that this is something that you look at and say, okay, how do we actually need to do this? How do these parts work together?

And of course, I think another potential role for this work is downscaling because States and municipalities and so forth are also interested in developing their policies. So it provides if you will, a national envelope or set of boundary conditions within which you can sort of look at the scale down, whether it’s jurisdictional or for individual industries.

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