Study finds electrification is key to decarbonization of New England

November 24, 2020

by Peter Maloney
November 24, 2020

New England will require economy wide electrification to achieve greenhouse gas reduction targets, according to a new report by Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) and Energy Futures Initiative (EFI).

All six New England states have adopted economy wide greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets of at least 80% reductions by mid-century, and Massachusetts recently adopted a net-zero commitment. And every state in the region, except Vermont, has seen its gross emissions decline since 1990 aided by the power sector’s transition from coal to natural gas as a generation fuel.

The region does pose unique challenges in achieving its emission reduction goals, the authors said.

The proportion of emissions in New England attributable to the transportation sector is higher than the national average while emissions from industrial sources are lower.

Transportation accounts for 42% of carbon dioxide emissions in New England while electricity accounts for about 20%, the report, Net-Zero New England: Ensuring Electric Reliability in a Low-Carbon Future, noted.

The report was sponsored by Calpine, an independent generation company that is heavily invested in gas-fired power plants. Calpine provided “input and perspectives” regarding the scope and analysis of the study but “all decisions regarding the analysis were made by E3 and EFI.” The authors also noted that the report “solely reflects the research, analysis, and conclusions” of E3 and EFI.

The report found that New England’s unique energy profile means that the region will not “be able to attain its GHG reduction goals with an exclusive focus on electricity production; it will be necessary to implement aggressive decarbonization on an economy-wide basis.”

Another unique factor in New England’s energy profile also creates a challenge. Fossil fuels used for residential and commercial heating contribute about 25% the region’s emissions, and New England is the only region in the country where oil is the most common heating fuel, the report said.

Direct energy use for transportation and buildings makes up two-thirds of New England’s emissions, therefore, mitigating GHG emissions will require strategies that emphasize the aggressive deployment of energy efficiency; widespread electrification of buildings, transportation and the industrial sector; development of low-carbon fuels, and deep decarbonization of electricity supplies, the report found.

The study modeled two scenarios: one focused on electrification (High Electrification) and the other on low-carbon fuels (High Fuels) to achieve 95% carbon emissions reductions in the region, although the scenarios use both strategies to some degree. As New England states draw closer to their GHG reduction goals, electricity demand in the region will increase significantly over the next three decades, the report said. In the two primary scenarios studied, annual electricity demand grows by 70 terawatt-hours (TWh) to 110 (TWh) by 2050, roughly a 60% or 90% increase from current levels. And electric peak demand would rise to between 42 gigawatts (GW) and 51 (GW).

Meeting GHG reduction goals while increasing electrification will also require a greater reliance on renewable energy, the authors said. Under the two scenarios, a mix of 47 GW to 64 GW of new renewable generation capacity would be needed by 2050, including land-based solar and wind, offshore wind, and distributed solar, along with 3.5 GW of incremental Canadian hydro. The authors also noted, however, that New England’s constrained geography, “slow pace of electric transmission planning, and historical difficulty siting new infrastructure are significant challenges that the region must overcome.”

Higher levels of renewable energy would also require firm capacity to ensure cost-effective and reliable energy supplies, the report said. As much as 46 GW of firm capacity could be needed in 2050 to ensure resource adequacy. Relying on renewable energy resources backed by battery storage, would be “extremely costly,” the authors added. Firm capacity would include about 34 GW of gas-fired generation, 3.5 GW of nuclear power, 8 GW of energy imports, and 1 GW of biomass and waste energy, the report found.

New resources, such as advanced nuclear, natural gas plants with carbon capture and sequestration, long duration energy storage, or generation from carbon-neutral fuels such as hydrogen, could be used to provide firm capacity, but until any of those technologies are commercially viable, natural gas generation is the most cost-effective source of firm capacity, the report said, adding that “some reliance” on gas generation is consistent with achieving a 95% carbon-free electricity grid in 2050 as long as the gas plants operate at a “suitably low capacity factor.”