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US plans to shift 80% power grid on emissions-free sources

WASHINGTON DC, USA: The White House plans to increase the support from United States utilities, unions and green groups for a national clean energy mandate by backing efforts to require the US power grid to get 80% of its power from emissions-free sources by 2030, a senior administration official tells the Reuters news agency.

A 2030 target would be a milestone on the way to achieving US President Joe Biden’s stated ambition of net-zero carbon emissions in the grid by 2035. It could also potentially be passed without Republican support through a process called budget reconciliation.

“Our goal is to enact this into law,” Deputy White House Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi told media agencies which reported the news on Tuesday, speaking of the administration’s push for a so-called clean energy standard (CES) to decarbonise the power sector.

The latter would require reductions in emissions by adopting renewable sources wind and solar, using nuclear energy or finding ways to suck up and sequester greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel plants.

“There are multiple pathways to get meaningful progress in the power sector,” Zaidi said. “We think this is a really powerful one in terms of giving utilities a clear and clean planning horizon.”

Requiring utilities to move away from coal and natural gas is a cornerstone of US President Joe Biden’s plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half across the US economy in the next 10 years.

Many utilities already have plans to remove carbon from their systems due to investor pressure or state mandates, so they broadly support the policy.

They are concerned, however, that technological breakthrough needed to reach zero emissions may not materialise in time to meet a 2035 timeline.

In a statement, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said the administration’s 2035 goal was “overly ambitious.”

This month, however, 13 prominent utilities sent a letter to Biden in support of a power sector goal that would cut emissions by 80% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The country’s grid is currently just 40% clean but getting to 80% by 2030 can be achieved with existing technologies at no additional cost to ratepayers in every region because the cost of renewables and batteries have come down so much, according to a new analysis by researchers at Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley.

The policy has support from members of both parties in Congress, though Republicans have not embraced the administration’s aggressive timeline due to concerns that it will drive up costs and kill jobs in fossil fuel industries.

Democrats could pass a CES with a simple majority as a revision of budget legislation if the CES sets a 2030 target, since reconciliation measures must fall within a 10-year window.

The Senate is currently divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republican but Democrats have control because Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie. Legislation outside of the reconciliation process would need 60 votes to bypass a potential Republican procedural move known as a filibuster.

The White House is weighing various legislative options and speaking to legislators in both parties.

In addition to wind, solar and nuclear power as means to eliminate the use of fossil fuels to generate power, policymakers are also looking at hydrogen as an alternative fuel.

Decarbonising energy and other industries globally using hydrogen will require an investment of almost $15 trillion between now and 2050, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) said in a report on Tuesday.

The ETC is an international coalition of executives from the energy industry committed to achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century, a goal set by the Paris climate agreement.

So-called green hydrogen, made by using renewable energy to power electrolysers to convert water, is being backed by many governments for vehicles and energy plants but it is currently too expensive for widespread use.

Proponents say infrastructure investment and more demand from transport, gas grids and industry will bring the costs down.

The ETC said that to reach a globally agreed goal of net zero emissions by mid-century, clean power must be at the heart of decarbonising every sector and hydrogen will play an important role in decarbonising industries such as steel and transport.

Hydrogen use is forecast to grow to 500-800 million tonnes a year by mid-century, accounting for 15-20% of total final energy demand, from 115 million tonnes currently.