Muhammad Nasir

What does achieving net-zero emissions mean for electricity?

The most efficient and economic way to decarbonize is to use clean electricity to power as many buildings, transportation, and industrial processes as possible. This is because electricity is inherently more efficient than fossil fuels in many applications in the economy, notably in vehicle motors and heating in buildings.

As electric appliances and vehicles replace today’s fossil fuel-based equipment at the end of their useful lives, electricity demand increases significantly, as does demand for the resources required to create that electricity. But electricity is more efficient than fossil fuels, so overall economy-wide energy demand decreases between 2021 to 2050 despite the increase in electricity demand.

The NZNW Energy Pathways analysis finds that new loads from electrification and fuels production drive large investments in renewable energy resources used to generate electricity. The analysis also modeled three scenarios exploring the role of distributed energy resources and demand response.

Achieving net-zero emissions impacts the electricity sector in the following key ways:

  • Economy-wide electricity end-use demand more than doubles from 2021 to 2050.

  • New transportation electricity loads drive just over half of all end-use electricity growth from 2021 to 2050 as electric vehicles replace internal combustion engine vehicles.

  • Overall electricity demand including new industrial loads, such as electrolysis and direct air capture, increases 236% from 2021 to 2050.

  • Renewable builds in the Northwest total 138 GW by 2050.

Please see NZNW Electricity Results for a full discussion of the assumptions, modeling, and scenarios.

Energy Demand Decreases 30% by 2050

As the visualization below shows, the Core Case found that overall economy-wide energy demand—displayed in gigawatt-hours (GWh)—would decrease by 30% due to the efficiency gains that come primarily from fuel switching to electricity, despite a 105% increase in end-use demand for electricity. Overall lower energy demand minimizes decarbonization costs.

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Transportation Electrification Drives Electricity Loads

The visualization below shows electricity end-use demand more than doubling from 2021 to 2050. While demand grows in all sectors of the economy, new transportation electricity loads drive just over half of all electricity growth over the period modeled as electric vehicles replace internal combustion engine vehicles. Electric drivetrains are highly efficient compared to the internal combustion engines they replace.

Residential and commercial appliances also see significant efficiency gains with fuel switching to electric heat pumps, which are more efficient than both electric resistance heat and gas furnaces.

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The visualization below shows the electricity balance (electricity generation and consumption) in the four Northwest states from 2021 to 2050 in five-year timesteps.

Overall, electricity consumption grows in all four states. In Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, electricity is used for a variety of different end uses, while Montana deploys a large proportion of electricity for electrolysis (see the light green bars). Washington switches from being a net exporter of electricity in 2021 to a net importer from 2035 onwards.

Oregon sees 1.2 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2035. In Washington, there is greater in-state solar and wind resource development than in previous studies because higher transmission cost assumptions in NZNW Energy Pathways make it less desirable to import electricity and more economically attractive to develop renewables locally, particularly in the 2030s.

Renewables develop in Washington after 2035 because the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) causes the nation’s best renewable resources to be built out first. Washington’s resource quality is not as high as other parts of the country, so is developed between 2035 and 2040 in the model.

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Dramatic Growth in Generation Capacity for the 11 Western States

The maps below show how generation capacity in the 11 Western states grows from 2021 to 2050, with renewables (solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, hydro) dominating the energy resource mix.

There is also significant growth in electricity storage capacity to store electricity produced from intermittent sources, such as solar and wind. The Northwest does not need as much grid-scale storage as other parts of the country at the bulk system level in the Northwest, due to the prevalence of flexible hydro, high-quality wind, and, in later years, the quantity of flexible hydrogen production forecasted.

In contrast, regions with high solar output, such as California and Arizona, build a lot of storage because of the diurnal shape of production and the need to move energy from day to night.

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Clean electricity is the lynchpin of the energy transition and while the Northwest has a distinct advantage in the United States with its hydroelectricity, the region is also well-positioned to develop other renewable energy resources in the coming decades. These will not only enable Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to meet net-zero emission targets, but also play a meaningful role in the overall decarbonization of the 11 Western states.

Recommended actions to advance in the 2030’s include investing in energy efficiency and clean electrification, as well as reforming siting and permitting processes to ensure that renewable and transmission investment can keep pace with clean energy demand. Rapid expansion of renewable generation capacity throughout the region, combined with expanded transmission, will be critically important in the 2040s and beyond.

The region can take advantage of IRA incentives through 2032, particularly in Montana, whose high-capacity wind resources could power electrolysis to produce green hydrogen. In the 2040s, the region would continue to expand renewable generation capacity, especially the less economic resources that would not be developed in 2030s, such as Washington solar.