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How The Northeast Could Cut Carbon Pollution By 75 Percent In 5 Simple Steps

Climate Progress, Feb. 4, 2014


Boston, Massachusetts.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

By Jeff Spross

A new report says the northeastern U.S. could cut its carbon dioxide emissions in half — just by taking advantage of technology that’s already available.

“It’s really about heating buildings and powering transportation,” said Jamie Howland, the director of the Climate Energy Analysis Center at ENE, and the report’s lead author. “Those are two things that have traditionally been done directly by fossil fuels.”


CREDIT: ENE EnergyVision report

The ENE EnergyVision report covers Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey. It notes that over the last decade, oil and coal collapsed as power sources for the electrical grids of those states. Hydroelectric, other renewables, nuclear, and natural gas rose to take their place, making electrical power there greener. So simply switching things like building heat and transportation over to electric power — using technology that’s already commercialized — could deliver huge gains.

“If you just hypothetically did that, greenhouse gas emissions would be cut in half. I don’t think most people realize that,” Howland said. “You get cost reductions in many cases. And you get those today, with today’s electricity generated by natural gas.”

Beyond that, combining such a move with a big push onto renewables to power the electrical grid, and the northeast’s emissions could drop 75 percent by 2050. Here are the key points:

Building electrification. Lots of homes and businesses in the northeast rely on natural gas for heating. But thirty-five percent don’t have access to natural gas infrastructure, and run on oil or propane. Expanded the natural gas infrastructure would be considerably expensive, but, as Howland points out, “everyone has an electric wire running to their house.”

Electric heat pumps have advanced significantly in recent years, they’re now far more effective and efficient than previous electrical heating/cooling systems, and they’re widely commercialized. “They’re all over in the southeastern U.S. and the mid-Atlantic,” said Howland. “But not in the northern climates because they just didn’t perform efficiently. And now they do. Some folks I work with in northern Vermont were sending me pictures of their heat pumps working when it was minus 20 out last week.”

The report estimates a switch to heat pumps would massively cut the greenhouse gas emissions put out by heating the typical home.


CREDIT: ENE EnergyVision report

The really big gains are in switching over bigger buildings. But similar technologies like electric heat pump hot water heaters and dehumidifying clothes driers can also get added reductions for the typical home. The report suggests expanding the state-level efficiency programs that already exist to encourage residential and commercial consumers to electrify their heating systems.

Electric Transportation. Using New England’s current fuel mix for electricity, the report estimates electric vehicles can reduce carbon emission from transportation by 60 percent, while cutting operating costs by 64 percent.


CREDIT: ENE EnergyVision report

Howland said the technology for both the cars themselves and the infrastructure is ready, it just needs to be deployed at a mass scale. Sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles shot up 84 percent from 2012 to 2013, and within the last few months both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt cut their prices to $28,800 and $34,995, respectively. (Purchasers of both are eligible for $7,500 tax credit.)

The plug-in hybrids are especially significant, because they avoid the range concerns that still hover overly purely electric cars. But for the average commuter, driving 10 to 20 miles a day, hybrids effectively function as electric cars emissions-wise.

The ENE report recommends policies and building codes to encourage charging infrastructure in homes and office building parking spaces. Electric cars and hybrids can also be used as on-site power storage for the buildings they’re plugged into: power is drawn out of their batteries to smooth out spikes in electricity demand, then they’re recharged when demand is low and the building is getting more electricity than it needs. The report also calls for greater electrification of buses, light rail, commuter rail and high-speed rail.

Modernize the grid. Under current regulations and market structures, utilities make their money by delivering power and by building the infrastructure by which it’s delivered. “There’s a very high rate of returns for transmission lines,” Howland explained, so of course utilities want to focus on that. But according to the ENE report, what’s needed is modern smart grid technology that turns each residential or commercial building into its own “micro utility.”

That means things like smart meters, smart thermostats, smart appliances, and modern electrical systems within homes and buildings that all communicate with each other and the owner. That makes for better demand management on site, less need for demand management from the utility, and more efficient use of power overall. Power storage can also help — such as the aforementioned use of electric vehicles as temporary batteries — as well as distributed generation like solar for more electricity produced on site.

But that means the regulatory and market structures surrounding utility companies needs to change, so they no longer see less power usage by their customer as a threat to their bottom line. “We just have to make the areas where [utilities] can be the most profitable the areas that are the best aligned with the public interest,” Howland said. A good template might be the recent proposal by Massachusetts to push smart grid technology throughout the state.

More energy efficiency. By cutting the amount of power homes and businesses actually need to function, the six New England states have already avoided spending $416 million on new transmission infrastructure. To build on that success, the ENE report recommends expanding Zero Net Energy building programs — which dovetail with making residential and commercial customers into their own “micro utilities” — as well as efficiency and weatherization incentives for existing homes. It also suggests a standardized Building Energy Labeling system, so any upgraded building can easily advertise the improvements, and gain more value when resold.

For new buildings, there’s the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). The 2009 and 2012 versions both cut energy use 15 percent a piece from 1975 levels. All of the northeastern states have adopted either the 2009 or 2012 iteration, and presumably will keep advancing as new versions are released.

The report also singles out better zoning regulations to encourage shorter commutes, more walking and bicycle use, and more green spaces.

Keep pushing renewables. One big caveat in all this: depending on how bad the leakage is throughout the country’s infrastructure — and several studies suggest its substantial — natural gas may actually have no greenhouse advantage over coal at all. In which case, the big shift to electrification described above wouldn’t deliver the emissions cuts.

But that’s not the only reason for the shift. It would also set the stage for renewables. Solar and wind won’t do as much good if cars are still run and homes are still heated by a fossil fuel system that works parallel to the electrical grid. “We need to make sure we’re ready for those renewables,” Howland insisted. That will mean adding all sorts of new demands — vehicles, heating, etc — to the grid. Which in turn will require smart systems to better manage demand. “We can’t do electrification without doing grid modernization.”

To establish the renewables themselves, the ENE report argues for strengthening state policies that are already in place, like renewable energy standards (RES) and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
Currently, every northeastern state has an RES that calls for anything from 10 and 30 percent of the state’s power to be renewable at some point between 2015 and 2026 then plateaus. (Massachusetts’ RES calls for 25 percent by 2030 and just keeps on going up.) The ENE EnergyVision report argues those goals should be set even higher.

RGGI, meanwhile, is a cap-and-trade system established in 2009, and now encompasses nine northeastern states. But the unexpected natural gas boom actually drove the region’s emissions well below the cap, which drove the value of the carbon permits down to rock bottom. Low prices mean low trading, and low trading means little incentive for further emissions cuts. So the states RGGI states recently decided to drop the cap 45 percent starting this year.


That should encourage a fresh round of efforts in the market to reduce carbon emissions. But right now the cap only extends to 2020 and only covers the power sector. The ENE EnergyVision report argues for extending that cap and its downward slope past 2020, and expanding carbon controls to others sectors of the economy.

Between the electrification, grid modernization, and the renewables push, ENE thinks the northeast could cut its carbon emissions 75 percent by 2050. They could also conceivably serve as an example for the rest of the country. Texas, for example, is heavily reliant on automobile travel, has hot summers where the need for cooling is widespread, and boasts a massive potential for solar and wind energy. It also released more carbon dioxide in 2011 than all the states covered by the ENE report combined.

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