Meeting Calif. goal of 80% GHG reduction possible, but difficult -- study

Correction appended.

California cannot reach its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 without major advancements in technologies, a new report says.

"Existing technologies, off the shelf technologies" and ones likely to be available in the near future are insufficient to power the Golden State to the finish line on reductions mandated by its climate law, A.B. 32, an analysis from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released yesterday says. California's Global Warming Solutions Act -- which is applying a number of levers to force down carbon pollution -- requires that emissions drop 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The major obstacle to hitting the target is supplanting the fossil fuel used to power the transportation system, including not just cars and trucks but also airplanes, said Jeffery Greenblatt, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley. That sector in its entirety is the leading source of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

"Most of the problem has to do with not having enough ways to reduce the carbon emissions from fuels," Greenblatt said. "You need an awful lot of biomass to replace all the petroleum that is used to power our transportation system."


California can, however, get close to its goal, according to the report, which Greenblatt produced with researcher Jane Long, principal associate director at large with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Existing technologies or ones likely to emerge soon should make it possible to achieve a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, he said. But even hitting that 60 percent goal will require a overhaul of several sectors, the report warns.

"All buildings would either have to be demolished, retrofitted, or built new to very high efficiency standards," the report says, "vehicles of all sorts would need to be made significantly more efficient, and that industrial processes would need to advance beyond technology available today.

"Moreover, widespread electrification wherever technically feasible would be required, through the use of hybrid or all-electric vehicle drivetrains, heat pumps for space and water heating, and specialized electric heating technology (microwave, electric arc, etc.) in industrial applications," it adds.

A fleet of cars that's 60% electric

That would mean Californians would need to more fully adopt products that include plug-in electric cars. The report assumes that about 70 percent of new light-duty vehicles in 2050 would be plug-in hybrid or all-electric in order to hit the 60 percent reduction, Greenblatt said. That would work out to a total fleet that's about 60 percent electric, he said.

There would also need to be a transformation in buildings so that 70 percent shift from using fossil fuel-powered electricity for heating space and water and instead use electric heat pump technology.

Policymakers would need to continually adopt rules that shift the state toward green buildings, vehicles and a clean power grid, Greenblatt said.

"I'm not going to pretend this is easy," Greenblatt said. "This is a pretty significant challenge.

"We think that it's possible to do it if all hands are rowing in the same direction and we have the state policy support," Greenblatt said, including both strengthening existing policies and adding new ones. The changeover to electric heat pumps in buildings, for example, he said, "is not going to happen by itself."

As well, he said, "we're not convinced that all these things are going to be cost-effective, either."

The study envisions that fossil fuels play a very small role in California by 2050, because of the switch to electric vehicles and because of other changes needed to make the power grid greener. Some who work for the oil and natural gas industry said they don't believe the changes California policymakers want are realistic.

'Pie in the sky'?

"It's sort of pie-in-the-sky," said Norman Plotkin, a consultant for the California Independent Petroleum Association, a trade group of oil and natural gas producers. "Essentially, they're going to take us back to covered wagon."

Consumers are unlikely to buy electric vehicles in the numbers required, Plotkin said. And because electric vehicles would plug into the grid, he said, power sources would have to be clean to meet the goal. That would require a large increase in nuclear power to back up intermittent renewable energy sources, he said.

"We don't see happening politically," Plotkin said.

The other option would be to ramp up the amount of biomass used to make power, he said, but that's not realistic because it requires so much water.

"There's always more to the story in each of these alternatives," Plotkin said.

Tupper Hull, vice president of strategic communications at the Western States Petroleum Association, said other reports have identified "the dramatic changes in technology, fuels, lifestyle, land use and many other social conventions that will have to be transformed in order to meet the 2050 goals."

"We're not focused on 2050 at this time," Hull said. "We are attempting to figure out how to meet the more modest 2020 goals without killing off more manufacturing in the state, losing more jobs and otherwise reducing economic activity in California. That is an enormous challenge, and the jury is out whether California can pull that off."

The mandate Hull referred to is a requirement that California by 2020 shrink greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

Making the grid cleaner will require a change from today's system, Greenblatt said, adding, "We assume that we are going to get to a very low-carbon electricity system 2050."

The options include 80 percent renewables, fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration or an expansion of nuclear power.

"Assuming that, then switching over to electric vehicles would be a very beneficial thing from a greenhouse gas perspective," Greenblatt said.

Hitting 80% would require new technologies

To reach the 80 percent reduction, Greenblatt said, there would likely need to be a group of advancements.

Evolving technologies that could help include using hydrogen to power cars and for industrial heating, he said, "but there are still technology challenges to making that a large-scale part of the solution."

Hydrogen infrastructure costs have dropped more than expected of late, he said, but would need to tumble further.

Other possibilities, the report says, include finding new ways to shrink demand, increasing energy efficiency, curbing the greenhouse gas intensity of fuels or switching to zero-emission biofuels along with biomass made with carbon capture and sequestration. Improvements in energy storage also would assist.

"We have some work to do to figure out if there are going to be additional technologies available to get us all the way there," Greenblatt said.

The report is part of a project funded in part by the Stephen Bechtel Fund, a private foundation, and the California Energy Commission.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described California's 2020 greenhouse gas mandate.

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