Coal-Free Western US: At What Price?

Making the switch from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles and increased energy efficiency in buildings have both been lauded as important steps in cutting carbon emissions. But some big brains at the University of California at Berkeley have run the numbers and studied the scenarios, and, according to the results of a recent study, the least expensive way for the Western U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to help prevent the worst consequences of global warming is to replace coal with renewables and other sources of energy.

The study, published in the April issue of the journal Energy Policy, highlights an analysis using Switch, a highly detailed computer model of the electric power grid, to study generation, transmission and storage options for the states west of the Kansas.

UC berkeley western u.s. energy

image via UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Group

Using this model, researchers arrived at a pretty simple conclusion: “Decarbonization of the electric power sector is critical to achieving greenhouse gas reductions that are needed for a sustainable future,” said Daniel Kammen, the Distinguished Professor of Energy in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and lead author on the study. “To meet these carbon goals, coal has to go away from the region.”

Sure, but how do we do that, exactly?

Here’s how: The Berkeley researchers said policy changes are needed to cap or tax carbon emissions to provide an incentive to move toward low-carbon electricity sources. And while some previous studies have emphasized the high cost of such taxes or caps, this new study shows that replacing coal with more gas generation, as well as renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy, would result in only a moderate increase to consumers in the cost of electric power – at most, 20 percent.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.