Three Super Solutions Could Make Net Zero by 2050


ICF Climate Center

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2023

The ICF Climate Center recently released an important report, "Zeroing-in on climate change: Three 'super solutions' could put the U.S. on a path toward a net-zero economy by 2050." It finds that while the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Infrastructure Reduction Act will move the U.S. about halfway toward its 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals, there is a pathway to go the rest of the way.

Using ICF's tech platform, CO2Sight™, the ICF Climate Center modeled a path toward achieving U.S. decarbonization goals with three solutions, which are critical pieces of those two federal laws; transportation electrification, buildings, and clean energy. ICF dubbed them "super solutions," whereby the U.S. could eliminate more than forty percent of GHG emissions by 2030 and nearly ninety percent of GHG emissions by 2050.

PUF's Steve Mitnick talked to an author of the report, ICF's Adam Agalloco, to dig deeper into what this all could mean for the future of decarbonization. Be sure to check out the report online at the ICF Climate Center.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: This is an important, quantitative report on the road to decarbonization. You were one of the prime movers, so what are the important takeaways?

Adam Agalloco: The most important takeaway from a high level is that we have solutions to reach the ambitious goals in the U.S. around decarbonization. Those are a fifty percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, achieved with three big, what we're calling super solutions, via existing technologies.

We can cut emissions close to meeting those goals. That's what our research is showing.

PUF: Stop there because that's a big one. You are saying these goals are achievable. Also, there are three super solutions.

Adam Agalloco: Achieving them is steep, it's challenging. There are a lot of complexities along the way to those solutions, but yes, it is possible.

We focus our work on transportation electrification, building decarbonization, and clean energy. Those are the three super solutions that we've looked at in this study. Our research shows it is possible to get close to a ninety percent reduction in emissions by 2050 by deploying those in a robust manner.

PUF: Are you implying there are barriers that need to be overcome to reach those goals?

Adam Agalloco: That's right. Our research is showing that we can reach these goals by deploying these solutions. Are there barriers? For sure. With transportation electrification, that's going to require the deployment of infrastructure that supports that work, including charging and electrical infrastructure.

It's also going to require a lot of folks changing the way they view EVs and EV ownership. What we're proposing, what we're outlining, are the benefits associated with doing that.

We will need to electrify not just the light-duty vehicles, but also look at public transportation electrification or other types of vehicle traffic, whether it's through electrification or low-carbon fuels.

PUF: ICF used heavy quantitative analysis and modeling in each of these areas, the EV, transportation electrification, building decarbonization, and generation side. Give a sense of that.

Adam Agalloco: We can look at the super solutions one at a time. We can group transportation and buildings together a bit.

In those sectors we look at equipment, be it a vehicle, boiler, heat pump or air handling unit, and use what we call a stock rollover model, meaning that each piece of the equipment, each vehicle, has a useful life. As that equipment reaches the end of its useful life, there's a choice that needs to be made.

Do I replace that with the same or similar piece of equipment that I have? Do I go to an alternative that uses a different fuel? Our modeling looked at the opportunity analysis associated with that stock rollover and asked, "What if different choices are made?"

Then, we looked at it from the standpoint of what would support those choices being made. This is in alignment with available data sets from the National Renewable Electricity Labs.

So, aligning our assumptions as to what folks might select as their equipment, then allows us to understand what that looks like from a stock rollover perspective. We can do the same for energy efficiency, in addition to electrification. That's the cornerstone for the transportation and the building sector.

For the electricity generation and the clean fuels aspect, we use ICF's Integrated Planning Model IPM®, which is ICF's tool to look at a least-cost capacity expansion for the electricity generating sector. Through the model, we set a carbon-emissions goal to make sure we could achieve a decarbonized grid, and used IPM to understand what that grid could look like based on that selection.

PUF: When you model, is it based on economics, or do you consider institutional aspects such as behavior, being able to get financing or politics?

Adam Agalloco: First to clarify, we did not model costs associated with these solutions, but cost is an important factor in a decision process for what happens at the end of a useful life for equipment.

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So, built into the different deployment curves that we have for transportation, building electrification or building energy efficiency is embedded in that economic trigger to inform how a decarbonization decision is made.

Essentially, what we've said is that a supporting set of policy solutions, technological advancements, or incentive structures, that different aspects all play into those decisions.

To some extent when we look through this work, our research is showing that if you deploy a range of those influencers, you can reach high levels of penetration of both electric vehicles in the transportation sector and different decarbonization solutions in the building sector.

PUF: Are there problems that need to be solved? Bad things can happen that would slow this down.

Adam Agalloco: We've outlined a lot of those throughout the report. We talked a bit about electric vehicle deployment and that infrastructure question being one of the key issues.

In the building sector, our research is showing there are barriers with scalability. Decarbonizing more broadly is going to require additional financial incentives of different types.

In the grid and clean electricity space, particularly land-use availability is going to be a huge challenge.

The economic viability and looking at challenges associated with materials is true for electric vehicles, as well as for some of the other clean energy solutions. For example, sourcing, refining and scaling copper, cobalt, and all the different kinds of metals needed for use in various decarbonization technologies are challenging.

Layered on that is industrial decarbonization. It isn't just a matter of getting those materials and building those decarbonizing pieces of equipment. It's also necessary to decarbonize the way they're being made in the industrial processes associated with them. All big challenges.

PUF: In these studies, people look at the role on the generation side of nuclear and natural gas. What's the role of gas and hydrogen or other low-carbon fuels? How did you resolve that?

Adam Agalloco: We talk about our diversified goal scenario as a combination of not trying to be, I'd say almost too heavy-handed with one solution, but more objective. There are lot of trade-offs and uncertainty.

I want to note that the diversified pathway that we outlined is not the only pathway. There are many ways that one could reach decarbonization goals. We selected one that we thought, again, provides a bit of an objective pathway and some balance across the solutions.

PUF: What team worked on this study and why did ICF decide to take up this study?

Adam Agalloco: The team works on our CO2Sight decarbonization platform, which is ICF's set of tools, models, and data that we use with all our decarbonization projects. The folks were primarily connected to the local and state government decarbonization work, as well as folks who do a range of our power sector work.

We developed this report as part of the ICF Climate Center, a climate think tank within ICF that we created to help answer big questions about climate change.

We talked about this study early on from a standpoint of providing context for the two big federal bills, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act and said, "Okay, how much do they contribute to carbon goals?"

We also tried to provide a bit of simplicity. It's not simple, but we tried to make this easier for somebody to understand what it would take to meet our emission goals.

Hence, we tried to bucket solutions into these big super solutions that we can more easily communicate around. It was a little easier to say that as opposed to, "Hey, there are all these things that need to happen. And our research is showing that you can reach decarbonization with a handful of solutions." Not to say that's the only way to do it.

PUF: What should readers look for and maybe their role in this?

Adam Agalloco: First, the U.S. has made some important strides toward climate goals. Our analysis shows that legislation does a lot.

But the main thing we want folks to know is that there are practical pathways, and they can look at this within their area of interest and start to understand how some of these solutions might fit for them.

Then have insights as to some of the challenges we've talked about, whether its scaling infrastructure, battery manufacturing, grid upgrades for peaks of electricity demand or other issues associated with supply chain constraints. But there are real challenges out there too.

PUF: How optimistic are you?

Adam Agalloco: It is not my role to be optimistic or pessimistic. It's my role to look at the numbers and show what our analysis means and how it provides context.

Our study shows that there are pathways for the U.S. to meets its goals, but obviously, there's a lot of work that needs to happen. There are a lot of risks associated with that, but there's a pathway for this to work.

PUF: What are you up to next?

Adam Agalloco: Our work is continuing with a lot of state and local clients, as well as some federal clients, to help them understand how this fits within specific context, and what solutions make sense for them.

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A key part of a lot of IFC's work is connecting to stakeholders and understanding not just what makes sense at a high level, but what resonates and what works with community members. That includes what is going to benefit disadvantaged communities to ensure there's an equitable transition. That is a priority for us and our clients.

We're taking the research we did through this study and applying it to some of those clients. While we're doing that, we're gaining more insights in terms of what this looks like on the ground for state, local government, and utilities. Whoever it is that's asking us.

PUF: What was the most rewarding or fun part of the project for you?

Adam Agalloco: I enjoyed looking at it from a national perspective and compared to what could happen. Most of my clients are local and state governments, and certainly they have a huge role to play, but to take a bigger picture view and understand how that fits for the U.S. was rewarding.