Start a This morning’s (virtual) climate summit, President Joe Biden pledged the United States to halve its 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. “That’s what we can do, if we are taking action to build an economy that is not only more prosperous, but healthier, fairer and cleaner for the entire planet, ”he said. The most optimistic target set by the Paris climate agreement would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – an effort that will require the participation of all human civilization. “We must take the path now to do this, ”Biden added. “If we do, we’ll breathe easier, both literally and figuratively.”
But what does this path look like? What technologies will we need to deploy and what kinds of bumps and potholes could we anticipate as the United States cuts its carbon output? Biden didn’t give details in his speech, so we asked climate experts for their thoughts on how this might play out.
Repairing the broken “ national ” grid
With the boom in solar and wind power, the United States is on track to decarbonize its energy production: emissions from the sector have fallen 37 percent since 2005, although this is partly due to the change from coal to natural gas. But an old and fragmented national grid stands in the way of a truly green energy system.
The network is actually made up of two – the West Interconnect and the East Interconnect, which meet at the eastern borders of Colorado and Wyoming – plus a smaller independent in Texas. While these separate grids may share some energy across their borders, they are not designed to work intimately with each other.
This is a huge problem given the intermittent nature of renewables. If the sun does not shine on the solar panels in the southwest, the region cannot generate electricity. But it can’t either import energy from, for example, the Midwest, where the wind could produce a lot of energy. And vice versa: if the wind isn’t blowing, the Midwest can’t import solar power from the southwest. Likewise, when Texas froze in February, he couldn’t import a lot of energy of all over.
Building high voltage transmission lines to link these separate grids will not only make a system more stable, but also greener, since renewable energy could in fact be shared across the country. “Being able to send extra energy where it’s needed is really important to enable more renewables,” says Zeke Hausfather, climatologist and director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, who is advocating for action against climate change. “We’re certainly not going to decarbonise the entire power sector by 2030. But we could build a lot more wind and solar power, and get all our coal out, relatively easily.”
A better network paves the way for more electric cars
Once renewable energy is sent back across the country, we can decarbonise transportation better. The federal government could invest massively in charging stations for electric vehicles, all connected to this greener network. The potential gains are enormous: transport represents 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, about as much as the production of electricity itself.
And to give people confidence that their electric vehicle will actually get them where they want to go before its battery dies, we need a nationwide network of charging stations. “It’s potentially one of the biggest investments, it’s actually in the boring stuff that connects places on the power grid,” says Daniel Swain, climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And then you electrify everything, basically.”