Climate Crisis

New Study Outlines Rapid Decarbonization Plan for R.I.


A rendering of the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project off Martha’s Vineyard. The project is expected to have about 60 turbines. (Vineyard Wind)

A new study demonstrates that achieving an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 is feasible for Rhode Island.

The study’s team was led by Brown University professor Timmons Roberts and is a collaboration between the Climate & Development Lab at Brown and the Stockholm Environment Institute. The study was motivated by the lack of leadership at the federal level in addressing climate change. As a result, state-level decarbonization plans are crucial to fulfilling the country’s climate responsibilities.

Many states, including Rhode Island, have adopted targets, such as “80% emissions reductions by 2050.” It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that those plans are no longer adequate and may already be obsolete.

For example, many states plan to convert from coal and heating oil to natural gas (methane) and that risks locking in fossil-fuel infrastructure systems that will only need to be dismantled before near net-zero emissions infrastructure can be installed.

The value of this study goes well beyond Rhode Island, as it provides insights for other Northeast states with similar infrastructure and challenges — e.g., older buildings using fossil-fuel heating, a common electrical grid across New England, and comparable climatic conditions.

Rhode Island needs to get on target
The 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act required the state to conduct a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reduction study by the end of 2016, targeting an 80 percent reduction of GHG emissions below 1990 levels by 2050. This reduction was commensurate with the targets agreed upon in a 2001 regional agreement between New England states and Eastern Canadian premiers.

However, Rhode Island was using 15-year-old science. To make matters worse, in 2018, the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that limiting planetary warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius was needed to avoid the catastrophic consequences of a 2-degree-warming world. To reach this goal, the world will need to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

This new study gives Rhode Island several pathways to meet the revised targets, especially considering the moral requirement of wealthy nations to “go first” in reducing emissions, as they agreed to in the 1994 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

A few states, including California, Washington, and New York, have taken the lead on economy-wide decarbonization.

Decarbonization studies conducted in other states raise similar issues to those faced by Rhode Island and suggest that deep decarbonization is possible here. Costs can be limited if equipment is replaced when it reaches the end of its useful life, along with aggressive efforts in energy efficiency, renewable power, and energy storage.

While decarbonization plans vary because of geography, climate, and other local factors, there is much to be learned from other states. For example, of relevance to the Ocean State are studies on decarbonization in Arizona and Utah that examine options such as renewable portfolio standards, demand-side measures, tax incentives, and carbon capture and storage.

The model
The Brown University study includes an integrated model of Rhode Island’s energy system from 2001 to 2050, and analyzes the state’s production, transmission, and distribution of electricity and natural gas, harvesting of biomass, and imports and distribution of other fossil fuels.

Historical and projected non-energy emissions are taken from Rhode Island’s 2016 climate plan. Total GHG emissions are reported using global warming potentials from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

Three scenarios seek to minimize Rhode Island’s GHG emissions by either 2030, 2040, or 2050. The key strategies are:

Increased deployment of zero-carbon power (notably offshore wind and solar).

Electrification of road and rail transportation, space heating (through heat pumps with electric resistance backup), and water heating (through heat pumps).

Energy efficiency in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.

Utilization of net-zero carbon biofuels in remaining applications of liquid fuels.

The findings
All three mitigation pathways achieve a nearly complete decarbonization of the Rhode Island electricity system by 2050, 2040, and 2030. None of the pathways, however, actually reach the net-zero goal, stalling out at about 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, these reductions are a substantial achievement — a 70 percent to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases.

The key features are the retirement for fossil-fuel power plants and a sharp increase in electricity demand with the switch to electric vehicles and building heat. The installation of more offshore wind at the end of this decade provides over half of all electricity, with utility solar and hydro each bringing in about 10 percent of electricity supply.

Both solar and hydro increase in the 2030s. The 2050 pathway involves almost no additional power-sector costs until well into the 2030s. In the 2030 pathway, offshore wind gets spun up starting in 2023 and is largely installed by 2028. Onshore wind likewise rises in the 2020s but is less important as time goes on.

The challenges
Methane remains a major obstacle to complete decarbonization, as do emissions from landfills, industrial emissions, and air travel. Rhode Island’s 2016 climate plan assumed natural-gas leakage equal to 0.66 percent of gas supplied, but several studies have shown this far underestimates leakage from Rhode Island’s old pipes and infrastructure, indicating a need to phase out natural gas altogether.

Transportation is presently the largest source of GHG emissions in Rhode Island — nearly 40 percent — and most of those emissions come from cars and trucks.

All decarbonization scenarios require some biofuels as the transportation fleet shifts from gas to electric. Rhode Island’s 2016 climate plan includes reasonable, if conservative, goals for deployment of biofuels — 79 percent ethanol in gasoline by 2041, 31 percent biodiesel in diesel by 2050, 20 percent biodiesel in distillate heating oil by 2043, and 99 percent cellulosic ethanol by 2023.

The figure to the right shows how quickly the transportation sector could be decarbonized. The 2050 pathway replaces cars and trucks with electric vehicles only when they reach the end of their expected lives, while the 2030 and 2040 pathways speed up the replacement of the oldest vehicles with electrics.

Warming Rhode Island’s homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals is a significant source of GHG emissions. Heating emissions can be reduced by replacing them with air-source and ground-source heat pumps.

The scenarios assume that deployment of new fossil-fueled heating systems ceases between now and 2030. Conventional fuels are retired according to the natural lifetime of the most common equipment, with some premature retirements needed in the deeper decarbonization scenarios.

Heating and cooling appears to be a sector that can be decarbonized entirely in Rhode Island, but the speed at which it happens will depend heavily upon state programs, investment, building codes, and other regulations.

Homeowners and businesses need to see the value in making the upfront investment in heat pumps. Incentives such as financing, tax credits, and rebates can help. As the state’s summers get hotter, more homes and businesses will install or upgrade air conditioners. This presents a crucial opportunity for them to switch to efficient systems.

Homeowners and small businesses often make decisions in crisis situations when systems fail and budgets are tight. This often leads to inefficient replacements that foreclose the possibility of real decarbonization for another decade or more.

The costs
This plan is a model for a Green New Deal in Rhode Island. The additional costs are shown in the figure.

It’s important to note that these results don’t include negative costs to society of not acting, nor do they include the substantial cost benefits that residents and businesses will see from job growth, cleaner air, and a stable climate system in which to live and work.

Many other studies have shown that investment in reducing GHG emissions results in job growth. Therefore, the spending over 15 years should be seen as an engine of job creation, economic development, and resilience.

The 2040 and 2050 pathways are significantly less costly, because building heating systems and vehicles can be replaced at the end of their expected lives.

Costs for space heating and cooling equipment, on-road vehicles, electricity generation, and imported fuels begin around $5 billion a year for Rhode Island, rising steadily to about $8 billion a year by 2050.

That is an overall average of $1.3 billion per year more than the baseline, or about 2 percent of the state’s growth domestic product. It’s also important to remember that even doing nothing has substantial costs.

There is one critical topic almost completely unaddressed in the state’s 2016 climate plan: equity.

A failure to mitigate climate change will endanger the lives and livelihoods of the elderly, poor people, people of color, and Indigenous people, coastal homeowners and renters, youth, those living in floodplains, construction workers, farmers, and the state’s fishing and tourism industries.

The groups most likely to suffer from climate change are low-income and minority Rhode Islanders, especially those living in urban heat islands and near hazardous and pollution-spewing facilities. These residents already suffer disproportionately from asthma and other health ailments and warming temperatures, more frequent and severe weather, flooding, and storm surge will exacerbate their problems.

The new electricity generation and distribution infrastructure will need to be placed somewhere, and it’s vital that already environmentally burdened areas don’t face additional strain from these projects. The current challenges faced by the fishing industry off the southern New England coast from the construction of offshore wind turbines highlights one of many groups struggling with this transition.

This plan shows that it’s possible to rapidly achieve 70 percent to 80 percent reductions in GHG emissions in Rhode Island using existing technologies — by 2030 if older cars and heating systems are retired early, and certainly by 2040.

Decarbonization of Rhode Island can be achieved at a reasonable cost if fossil-fuel-consuming equipment is switched to electric at the time of normal replacement.

The first thing Rhode Island must do to decarbonize is to stop investing in fossil-fuel infrastructure. Any such equipment will be functioning for years or decades to come, locking in emissions and stalling the needed transformation.

Before the lockdowns that came with COVID-19 last year, there was a strong belief that there wasn’t an easy solution for reducing emissions associated with activities such as air travel. The vast expansion of remote meetings has changed that idea and should lead to broader thinking about what changes are possible.

The Brown University plan concludes with specific policy recommendations:

Sharply improve energy efficiency, which will require tough building and appliance standards, investments, loans, and subsidies.

Electrify everything feasible, especially as furnaces, appliances, and vehicles need replacing. Rebates and financing support will be fundamental tools.

Develop grid-scale renewables and storage, accelerate state and regional programs.

Develop plans for dismantling natural-gas infrastructure.

Investigate and develop routes for decarbonizing industrial processes.

Examine and deploy innovative financing mechanisms.

Assure the equity of the proposed changes.

Roger Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident. He can be reached at [email protected].

Reference: J. Timmons Roberts, Jason Veysey, Daniel Traver, Benjamin Gross, Brett Cotler, “Faster and steeper is feasible: Modeling deeper decarbonization in a Northeastern U.S. State,” Energy Research & Social Science, 72, 2021.


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