Decarbonizing Virginia's Economy: Pathways to 2050
Recent policy initiatives in Virginia reflect an increased urgency in addressing the state’s contribution to global warming. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia’s energy system will drive major changes in how the Commonwealth generates its electricity, heats its buildings, powers its vehicles, and charts its economic future. In this report, we develop four scenarios to illustrate different approaches we can take to feasibly reach net zero. These scenarios are not forecasts, but potential pathways meant to highlight the costs and benefits of different choices we may make and of acting quickly. Our four scenarios include a likely case given available technology and trends; two stress tests meant to highlight the importance of acting quickly and using all of our resources; and an optimistic scenario in which new technology is rapidly developed and adopted.
Exploring these scenarios, we find evidence to support several broad findings about Virginia’s decarbonization options:
• Decarbonization by 2050 is achievable and affordable
• Done efficiently, the economic benefits in improved health and reduced global warming are greater than the costs
• Different policies and priorities imply a different resource mix and different costs
• Careful planning and policy design pay big dividends
• Coordination between state and local governments is essential
• A quicker start means lower long-run costs; delay is costly
• Consider energy equity in all stages of decarbonization
These results demonstrate that there are four essential pillars of any cost-effective decarbonization strategy:
1. Reducing energy consumed in transportation, heating and cooling, and other end-uses
2. Replacing fossil fuel-based energy generation with sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear and investment in energy storage
3. Shifting energy sources in buildings, vehicles, and factories
4. Capturing and sequestering carbon emissions
It is highly likely that electricity is going to replace most other energy sources in buildings and in transportation. This electricity will mainly be generated using renewables and the existing nuclear fleet. A small amount of natural gas will be used to ensure reliability, but will be converted to use a zero-carbon fuel. Other fuel sources, such as advanced nuclear, hydrogen, and zero carbon liquid fuels will have important, niche uses. Some existing generators that use fossil fuels would be very expensive to replace anytime soon, so a cost-effective transition will require some amount of carbon capture and sequestration to absorb the greenhouse gas emissions.
Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions from its electricity sector have fallen dramatically since 2007 and this has given the state something of a head start in decarbonizing its economy. But that does not mean we will reach the near zero levels needed to protect the climate without a substantial push from public policy that begins now and continues for the next three decades. We have developed a schedule of policy initiatives for policymakers to follow to achieve full decarbonization by 2050.
The Energy Transition Initiative is committed to enhancing opportunities for public input to important policy choices as the state moves to decarbonize. To assure that our analysis was informed by input from the broadest possible representation of communities across Virginia, we partnered with the Institute for Engagement and Negotiation to help design an effective process of public input. With IEN’s leadership, we reached out to a broad cross-section of technical experts and community stakeholders to solicit comments and feedback on a preliminary version of this report. These efforts culminated in a four-hour workshop held virtually on October 30, 2020. A summary of their feedback, together with a list of workshop participants, is available as a supplemental document to this report. The comments we received from stakeholders have greatly enriched the report, and help inform our plans for future work.