Electricity is essential to modern life: it powers our homes, schools, stores, offices, hospitals, and factories. Electricity generation is also the second-largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. In 2018, it accounted for 30 percent of emissions.
For decades, coal generated roughly half of our electricity, with oil, gas, nuclear, and hydro generating the other half. But this power mix has begun to shift. The recent shale boom has doubled natural gas’s share of power generation in the U.S. Wind and solar generation routinely make up more than half of new capacity added to the grid. And improvements in energy efficiency are helping to flatten demand for electricity.
These changes have reduced GHGs, but continued progress is not guaranteed. To reach net-zero emissions, we need to first decarbonize electricity generation, then adopt carbon-free electrification across all sectors of the economy.
Electricity policy focus areas
Dispatchable technologies like nuclear power, geothermal energy, and thermal generation with carbon capture can all help the U.S. reach net-zero emissions while maintaining grid stability. While these technologies are at various stages of development, new policies are required to deploy them at scale.
Thanks to technological advances and policy incentives, the cost of onshore wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy has declined by 44 percent and 87 percent, respectively, since 2005. Continuing these trends requires innovation in the design, production, siting, and operation of these renewable energy sources.
We usually build power plants near large concentrations of power users. But wind and solar must be generated where those resources are readily available. High-voltage transmission infrastructure to move power efficiently from where it's generated to where it's used is critical to ensuring that grid operators can provide reliable service while reducing overall carbon emissions.
To use more wind and solar power, we need to be able to store electricity for long periods of time. A range of options already exist, including flow batteries, underground pumped hydro, and molten-salt storage. Deploying these technologies at scale will require policy innovations and market-rule reform.