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An Eye-Opening Projection About America’s Clean Energy Future

In a new estimate, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the U.S. is on track for a major milestone.

An American flag and clean energy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

America’s electricity grid may be only eight years away from hitting a major decarbonization milestone, according to a new federal report.

On Wednesday, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a new forecast about what the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law could mean for the country’s power grid. They find that the grid could hit a crucial target — generating 80% of its electricity without burning fossil fuels — by the end of the decade.

Under some of the lab’s scenarios, the American grid could, by 2030, generate 90% of its electricity without burning carbon.

That is more than double today’s share, and it would make America’s power grid one of the cleanest in the world. Climate pollution from the power sector could plunge to 84% below its 2005 levels, when U.S. carbon pollution reached an all-time high.

The report is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s first analysis of the two laws’ effects. Although NREL is funded by the Department of Energy, it is operated independently of the federal government.

In one sense, the report’s biggest finding isn’t so shocking. The two laws — which Energy Department staffers lovingly call “Uncle IRA and Uncle BIL” — have always stood to transform the power sector more than other parts of the economy. “NREL’s analysis aligns fairly well with other independent assessments of the impact of federal policies passed by the last Congress,” Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, told me.

Last year, Jenkins’s research group estimated that the IRA and BIL would produce a 75 to 77% zero-carbon grid by 2030. That estimate is slightly below NREL’s estimate because the Princeton researchers forecast that Americans will adopt electric cars and other climate tech more quickly, causing the country’s demand for electricity to grow and forcing natural-gas power plants to meet the gap.

But the new NREL estimate is a reminder of just how significant the two laws are for the climate. Over the next eight years, the American electricity grid will change as much as it has in the past two decades. And the rapid decarbonization of the American grid was not a foregone conclusion, but driven entirely by policy. As recently as 19 months ago, U.S. power sector emissions were expected to plateau after 2025. Now they will plunge through the end of the decade.

The forecast contains a few more findings worth drawing out.

First, it looks at whether America’s ongoing struggle to build new transmission lines and other large-scale energy infrastructure could imperil the grid’s transformation. Its results are mixed but not catastrophic. Under its most transmission-constrained scenario, a little more than a fifth of the IRA’s potential carbon-pollution cuts to the power sector would fail to materialize. At the absolute low end, this would produce a grid that’s 71% clean in 2030 — still much better than today. Yet it lags the high-end estimate: If the U.S. passed optimal policy, and technology costs fell faster than expected, then the grid could become 90% zero-carbon by 2030.

Second, it looks at the IRA’s less discussed conventional environmental benefits — which are substantial. Coal and natural-gas power plants release a slew of toxic air pollutants, including tiny shards of soot and particulate matter known as PM2.5 because they measure less than 2.5 microns across. PM2.5 is so small that it wreaks havoc in the body, inflaming and damaging heart, lung, and brain tissue. But over the next decade, as coal and gas plants close to make way for new renewable and nuclear facilities, PM2.5 will subside.

Thanks to the climate and infrastructure laws, fewer Americans will suffer heart attacks, lung disease, and asthma attacks, the report finds. By 2030, the law could avert 11,000 to 18,000 early deaths, the analysis finds.

And that points to the final finding: The IRA and the infrastructure law will save society perhaps more than a trillion dollars — in ways that will and won’t ever show up on a traditional balance sheet. The two laws’ subsidies, first, will reduce electricity costs for people and businesses, saving $50 to $115 billion in this decade alone. Second, the health effects mentioned above could save $120 to $190 billion in health-care costs. But most impressive is NREL’s estimate of the laws’ benefits to the climate, as measured in dollars. In its view, the IRA and BIL could avert enough carbon emissions that they could save $880 billion in climate damages.

These suggest that even if the highest estimates of the IRA’s cost to the government come to pass, the law will more than pay for itself through its benefits to the climate alone.

Much could still go wrong in either law’s implementation, of course. But for now, research continues to suggest that some of the summer’s lofty predictions were not inaccurate. The IRA and the bipartisan infrastructure law, while imperfect, stand to turbocharge the transformation of the American energy system. The climate era is upon us.

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    Robinson Meyer

    Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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