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Hoover Tower with SEQ PV panels

California can meet 2030 climate goals, but 2050 targets look awfully difficult

April 11, 2019
Precourt Institute

By Vincent Xia


Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz chats with attendees before a discussion of
the new report he led on decarbonizing California. (Credit: Mark Golden/Stanford)

California will need to change all sectors of its economy extensively to reach its ambitious climate goals, but the right portfolio of technologies can help the state meet them, at least in the near term.

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz described on Wednesday evening at Stanford University how California can meet its 2030 goals, based on a new report by the non-profit organization he leads, Energy Futures Initiative. Meeting the state’s 2050 goals will be “extremely challenging,” according to a summary of the report released Wednesday. Moniz and panelists from Stanford and elsewhere discussed how investments and innovation might get the state on track to meet its mid-century goals through changes in transportation, electricity, agriculture and industry.

“This is not a policy document,” said Moniz, emeritus professor of physics at MIT and Stanford alumnus, PhD ’72. “It takes the existing California policies and asks what the technology pathways that might address those are, and what are the prospects of actually reaching the objectives.”

Moniz and his team performed a sector-by-sector analysis of California to find where carbon reductions could be achieved. The state law requirements for 2030, including a 40 percent economy-wide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s 1990 level, are achievable, they found. The mid-century goals, including an 80 percent cut in emissions and a carbon-free electricity system, can be met only with breakthroughs in a portfolio of affordable technologies. These may include bioenergy, floating offshore wind power, smart cities and buildings, producing hydrogen from water, and the ability to store months-long supplies of energy.


From left, Franklin Orr, Armond Cohen, Sally Benson, Lisa Briggs, Ernest Moniz, Melanie
Kenderdine (not visible) and Mark Zoback (Credit: Mark Golden/Stanford)

In the near-term, electricity production can reduce the most emissions, while efficiency remains a top priority for all energy sources. “The longest pole on the tent is energy efficiency, which will be critical towards meeting our 2030 goals,” Moniz said.

CCS and nuclear power

Melanie Kenderdine, a principal at the Energy Futures Initiative, quantified many of the study’s findings. Then several panelists not involved in writing the report discussed its conclusions. Much of the conversation turned to two other breakthroughs that the report said the state could use, though not without controversy: next generation nuclear power, and carbon capture, use and storage to deal with ongoing use of fossil fuels.

California needs to start building CCS infrastructure now to meet 2030 goals, Moniz said. For 2050, the state will probably need to capture carbon dioxide extensively: not only from concentrated sources like power plants, but from the air and the ocean. The CO2 can then be sequestered underground or, preferably, turned into useful products.

Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, which co-hosted the event, said that her research group has examined 100 percent renewable energy scenarios for California in minute detail. But in those scenarios, a massive amount of solar energy and energy storage is needed.

“But then we looked at the case with a little bit of CCS,” Benson said. “All of a sudden you don't need this massive over-generation of solar. You do still need a lot of storage, but it's much more feasible than trying to do it all” with 100 percent renewables.

The revival of California's nuclear power industry faces higher hurdles.

“There is a substantial social taboo on nuclear, particularly with those who ironically favor climate change solutions, so we have this kind of perfect mismatch here,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. The mismatch is mirrored on the other side of the political spectrum with strong support for nuclear power and weak support for climate action, he added.

The California Council on Science & Technology said in 2011 that the state would need to increase its nuclear capacity ten fold to meet the climate targets it had then. Since then, one of the state's two nuclear power plants was shuttered and the climate targets have become more ambitious. For now, California law prohibits new nuclear power plants until the federal government builds a long-term depository for nuclear waste.

'California not alone'

Panelists also discussed how the multisectoral makeover will be financed. Will state regulators, for example, be comfortable with regulated utilities procuring almost all their electricity from independent producers of renewable energy, asked moderator Franklin  Orr, emeritus professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford.

“In the early 2000s, you couldn’t get financing from traditional sources,” said Lisa Briggs, an executive with one such independent producer. “But now you can go to a (major bank) and get traditional funding sources to invest in those technologies.”

“We’re not there yet with some of the newer technologies, but I think we’ll get there,” said Briggs, director of government affairs for a division of Con Edison Clean Energy Businesses. 

Despite such optimism, the many students in the audience Wednesday might be discouraged by current U.S. federal policies on climate change, said Mark Zoback, director of Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative, which co-hosted the event.

He advised students not to let some “willful ignorance” get them down.

“California is not alone in this. Much of the developing world is actively decarbonizing. Many parts of the U.S.—red states as well as blue states—are decarbonizing,” Zoback said. “In California we are particularly fortunate to have these remarkable politicians who set these difficult, difficult goals for us.”

The challenges “will provide lots of opportunity for the students at Stanford, MIT and a hundred other universities to fully engage them probably for the rest of their careers,” he said as the discussion concluded.