A view to California's energy future

May 24, 2011

A view to California's energy future

Reducing California's carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels in the next 40 years is no easy task. But in a new report by the California Council on Science and Technology, the state can reach the 60 percent mark a little more easily.

The report, "California's Energy Future - The View to 2050," combines the results of a two-year study of California's energy future and assesses technology requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 -- as required by Executive Order S-3-05. The Lab's Jane Long and former Sandia Vice President Mim John serve as the co-chairs of California's Energy Future Committee and lead authors of the study.

To reach the aggressive goal, every existing building in the state will either be retrofitted to higher efficiency standards or replaced and 60 percent of light-duty vehicles will use electricity, so that the average fuel economy will be roughly 70 miles per gallon, the report states. Additionally, the electricity generating capacity of the state will be almost entirely replaced and then doubled with near zero-emission technology.

Challenges to reach the goal are daunting.

  • By 2050, California's population is expected to grow from the 2005 level of 37 million to  55 million. Even with moderate economic growth and business-as-usual (BAU) efficiency gains, the state needs roughly twice as much energy in 2050.
  • California's greenhouse gas emissions will need to fall from 470 million metric tons of CO2 per year in 2005 to 85 per year in 2050, with most of those emissions (77 million metric tons) coming from the energy sector.

The study does state that getting to the 60 percent reduction in GHG emissions can be accomplished through four key strategies:

  • Aggressive efficiency measures for buildings, industry and transportation to reduce the need for both electricity and fuel.
  • Electrification of transportation and heat wherever technically feasible to avoid fossil fuel use as much as possible.
  • Developing emission-free electricity production with some combination of renewable energy, nuclear power and fossil fuel accompanied by underground storage of the carbon dioxide emissions, while at the same time nearly doubling electricity production.
  • Finding supplies of low-carbon fuel to supply transportation and heat use which cannot be electrified, such as for airplanes and heavy duty trucks, and high quality heat in industry.

California has enough renewable resources, such as geothermal, solar and wind to supply all of the state's projected electricity needs in 2050, except many of these resources are intermittent. When the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, this power must be backed up or "firmed." In addition, demand for electricity fluctuates and utilities need to find a way to provide power that matches changing demand.

Nuclear power can provide constant, reliable emission-free energy with a much lower and more easily met requirement for load balancing. Roughly 30 new nuclear power plants could provide two-thirds of California's electric power in 2050, but nuclear waste storage remains a significant problem, the report states.

Further, California could continue to utilize fossil fuel for electricity production if we capture the resulting emissions and pump them underground, and the state has many decades of underground storage capacity for carbon dioxide.

The report recommends a balanced portfolio that uses some of each of these sources - renewables, nuclear and fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage - and a strong commitment to eliminating emissions from load balancing.

To read the full report, go to the California Council on Science and Technology Website.