The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden wants the U.S. to stop contributing to climate change by 2050. Here’s what that would actually take.

Putting the country on a path toward ‘net zero’ emissions would mean massive and rapid changes, from your kitchen to your carport

Joe Biden tours the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative site in Plymouth, N.H, in June 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The year is 2050, and everything in your home — perhaps in your entire life — is electric.

Your car runs on battery power. Your home heating runs through a highly efficient heat-pump system that has long since replaced the gas furnace. Not even the burners on your stove produce combustion or flames any longer.

And all of it is powered by an array of solar and sometimes distant wind installations, which route electricity across the country thanks to a gargantuan network of power lines that triples the scale of the United States’ current transmission infrastructure. You see them — the panels, the turbines, the lines — everywhere you drive, everywhere you go.

By 2050, in President-elect Joe Biden’s vision of the country — even more ambitious than what the Obama administration proposed — the United States would no longer be putting greenhouse gases into the air. And for that to happen, it is likely that our world would have to look a lot like what was just described.

That is the gist of what an extremely detailed study from energy experts at Princeton University describes in 344 exacting slides outlining what it would take for the United States to be “net zero” in 30 years — meaning any remaining greenhouse gas emissions would be offset by subtractions through forests, agriculture or perhaps directly sucking carbon from the air.

“The costs are affordable, the tool kit is there, but the scale of transformation across the country is significant,” said Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton professor and one of three leaders of the study, along with the university’s Eric Larson and Christopher Greig. “This is a major national undertaking that will only happen if we have the right national commitment.”

It may sound pretty radical, but around the world, countries are pledging just this. They will have net-zero emissions three decades from now, they say. There is just no other way to finally get climate change under control.

Once you lay it all out there, as the Princeton scholars do, it is a combination of things that seem completely doable and things that seem utterly alien. The cost, for instance, comes in reasonably low, considering the scale of the economy and what the United States already spends on energy: $2.5 trillion invested in the 2020s, for instance, and a substantial number of new jobs get created.

But it would still require a massive technological phase shift and an utterly remade country. In the next 10 years alone, the report says, we would need to add 50 million electric vehicles, quadruple the size of wind and solar in the United States, and expand the transmission infrastructure by 60 percent. It would certainly take a concerted effort — and legislation that, right now, it is hard to imagine Congress signing onto.

“If you took it as a given that you were going to get to net zero by 2050, this is the full onboard, all-hands-on-deck kind of thing that you would need to do,” said Susan Tierney, a senior adviser at the Analysis Group and an energy expert who advised on the report. “And it’s overwhelming.”

The Princeton team used detailed energy-system modeling, with five separate scenarios, to figure out how the United States could cease to emit any net amount of greenhouse gases by 2050. The details vary. For instance, most scenarios still use some nuclear power and some fossil fuels, but with carbon capture to remove their emissions. But a 100 percent renewable-energy scenario, somewhat more costly to achieve because of its deliberately constrained options, rules even this out.

More notable, though, is what is the same in the scenarios. Basically, everything that can be made electric — but especially things such as home heating and cars — gets made electric. And then renewable energy provides the electrons. Furthermore, the Princeton study goes into great detail about how, by 2050, moving those electrons around would require a massive build-out of electric transmission lines, a rough tripling of the existing infrastructure.

“Essentially all studies show that decarbonization means electrification,” said David Victor, an energy policy expert at the University of California at San Diego who was briefed on the Princeton study. “Either a lot of electrification or almost complete electrification. And that’s one of the central results from all these systems.”

In such a scenario, Tierney said, “the electric system is going to be much more visible and everywhere — more power lines, more solar panels, more wind turbines on the landscape.”

While electrification is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, it alone is not enough to reach net zero. There are going to be myriad issues that still arise.

Some fossil fuels, such as the jet fuel that powers airplanes, are going to be really tough to get rid of entirely. Also, it is not clear precisely what role will be played by one of the less-carbon-intensive fuels, natural gas. In many of the scenarios it sticks around in some modified form to back up parts of the electricity system, even as it gets outfitted with carbon-capture technology to make sure that greenhouse gases no longer reach the atmosphere.

“If you really take zero seriously, then how you get to zero, the last bits, is a big challenge,” Victor said.

Generally, this is where the energy models start to assume that we will have technological innovations later in the century that will fix these problems, such as the ability to withdraw a lot of carbon from fossil energy plants or directly from the air and bury it in the ground; the use of hydrogen fuels to a substantial extent; and the growth of a very large bioenergy industry that does not currently exist. These are all technologies that we fundamentally know can work and that exist at a small scale already, but they are in their infancy.

So according to Jenkins and the Princeton modelers, what basically has to happen is large investment in these prospects now, to have them available at a reasonable cost later — even though it is not known precisely how they will be used, or in what combination, just yet. Think of them as being sort of where wind and solar were several decades ago, as Jenkins puts it.

“We know how to make clean energy cheap,” Jenkins said. “We did it for wind and solar and batteries, and now we have to do it for the rest of the tool kit.”

The central question behind all of this is simply what is politically feasible. If Democrats take control of the Senate, some type of green stimulus that gets some of these gears turning could pass. But even then, it is not clear how many of these pieces could feasibly be put in place — although, it is important to note that at the state level, in places such as New York and California, much change is also occurring, although not necessarily with the dollar amounts needed.

The incoming Biden team knows what needs to happen, Victor said. “They know that electricity is central, and they know that you have to combine decarbonization with known technologies with a big investment in innovation,” he said.

But how tied their hands will be remains to be seen.

And hands will be tied not only by national politics, Tierney noted. There could be all kinds of “friction” that energy system modelers say they’re not able to include in their scenarios, she said: Legal issues. Permitting issues. Changes in consumer behavior, or resistance to changes. People wanting to keep their gas burners on their stoves, for instance, or not wanting to buy an electric car.

All of this is hard to account for in any fixed way but is likely to make any transition slower.

One massive issue, said Columbia University’s Jason Bordoff, who also has been briefed on the report, is the matter of permitting all of this new infrastructure — all of the renewable-energy installations and all of the new transmission infrastructure to carry the power around. Getting it all approved could hit significant, often local, hurdles.

“It is a reminder that if we are serious about deep decarbonization, every week needs to be Infrastructure Week from now on,” Bordoff said.

But of course, the United States will not get to net zero in precisely the ways described in the report, Jenkins acknowledged, nor is it likely to get there precisely in 2050. Rather, the document lays out the exacting details, and the people decide how many of them to accept — and when.

“It does provide information about how you could get to [net zero by] 2050 if society wanted to do that,” Tierney said. “So, it takes it as a given that society would.”