How Much Renewable Energy Is Required to Achieve Zero Emissions?

You’ve heard it before: Achieving net-zero emissions is essential to limiting global warming and climate change.

But unless you stop using energy altogether, reducing carbon emissions is nearly impossible without investing in renewables with its efficient, carbon-neutral benefits.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts renewable energy as the fastest-growing source of electricity generation in 2020, with the electric power sector adding 23.2 gigawatts (GW) of new wind capacity and 12.8 GW of utility-scale solar capacity. In fact, renewables’ share of the U.S. energy mix increased 100% between 2000 and 2018. Yet even with this considerable progress, renewables made up a little more than 17% of the U.S. energy mix in 2018, showing that there is still much work to do.

But what if you’re ready to move forward and reach net-zero carbon now?

Keep reading to learn how your organization can achieve net-zero emissions today. We’ll walk you through the role that renewables investments and a sustainable energy infrastructure play in reducing carbon emissions.

Net-Zero Emissions Made Easy with Renewables Investments

global net co2 emissions chart
Source: World Economic Forum, The Net-Zero Challenge Report (December 2019).

Net-zero emissions happen when man-made greenhouse gas emissions are removed from the environment through reduction measures. It’s a balancing act between emissions that are produced and emissions that are pulled from the atmosphere, regardless of whether they’re stored or sequestered.

Net-zero emissions are important not only because they limit global warming and air pollution, but also because they help avoid irreversible damage from climate change.

Today, communities and businesses are beginning to lead the way in emissions reduction by establishing science-based targets, which are a set of goals that provide a clear route to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

net zero emissions ball corporation
Ball Corporation is reducing absolute carbon emissions within its own operations by 55%. Renewables are essential to meeting that goal.

Just look at Ball Corporation: The global manufacturer is keeping its emissions reduction targets in line with climate science and is investing in a low-carbon sustainable energy infrastructure to achieve its goal.

In less than a year, Ball Corporation dramatically increased its share of renewables while reducing emissions impact from manufacturing operations.

So, renewables investments make it much easier for organizations to get to net-zero emissions – and in a lot less time.

Negligible Rejected Energy with Renewables

us energy usage 2019 chart
Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (April 2020).

Did you know as much as two-thirds of the energy produced in the U.S. is discarded and released into our environment?

Fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas lose a lot of energy when converted into electricity. This is called rejected energy. Lawrence Livermore National Labs estimates more than 66% of energy from fossil fuels extraction, processing, burning and transport is rejected and wasted.

That’s a lot of wasted energy!

That’s why trying to achieve net-zero emissions with fossil fuels may feel like an uphill battle – you’ll have a lot more emissions to reduce.

In comparison, nearly 100% of wind and solar energy transforms into electrical energy that we can use.

So, replacing coal, petroleum and other fossil fuels with clean energy resources means far less rejected energy discarded as greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (best known for creating acid rain) and even soot from tailpipe exhaust.

Rejected energy means there’s really no need for a one-to-one energy replacement with renewables versus fossil fuels simply because you’ll have far less energy waste.

CO2 Emissions Per kWh by Energy Source

us power generation co2 emissions 2018 chart
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Need to get a full picture of carbon emissions by energy source?

The data is clear: Solar and wind have a much smaller carbon footprint than coal or gas – even when accounting for emissions from manufacturing wind and solar systems, site construction, maintenance and electricity transmission. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), electricity generation from renewables is carbon neutral.

Coal, natural gas and petroleum account for 99% of U.S. electricity-related carbon emissions. The remaining 1%? That’s from geothermal power plants.

Solar energy generation is now both the least expensive energy source to build and the lowest-cost generation resource in the U.S. Wind energy has the largest overall footprint, with innovations in off-shore and tower performance driving more scale.

And both utility-scale wind and solar projects are becoming hybrid projects involving large-scale energy storage in front of the meter. Coal generation plummeted in the first half of 2020 – to the tune of about 30%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Attributing this drop to COVID-19, some experts predict coal generation will return to normal levels when the global pandemic begins to subside.

That begs the question: How can we address energy consumption?

Changes in Energy Demand and Energy Consumption

co2 emissions reductions chart
CO2 emissions reductions by measure in the Sustainable Development Scenario relative to the Stated Policies Scenario, 2010-2050, IEA, Paris

Beyond cutting wasted energy and emissions, achieving net-zero requires us to use less energy. At first glance, that could be challenging, especially as more people around the world and economies rely on energy.

But energy efficiency is the obvious choice for many regions because it’s both cost-effective and it provides a substantial payback. At a global level, energy efficiency measures could save an estimated $311 billion to $455 billion in annual energy spending. That’s a real cost savings for communities and businesses that commit to efficiency initiatives!

The lowest cost and emissions electron is the one that’s never used.

That’s why efficiency – coupled with a growing trend toward the electrification of transportation, heating and cooling – is key to quickly transitioning to net-zero emissions.

Efficiency of Electrification

Electricity use is growing at more than double the pace of overall energy demand. Today, it accounts for less than half of oil energy usage. By 2040, it’s expected to overtake oil energy usage.

With electrification, energy demand goes down without even changing consumption habits.

There’s no energy needed to mine, process and transport fossil fuels. And the rejected energy waste of burning fossil fuels is also eliminated.

For example, by moving away from using coal – which produces a lot of heat – we can save a lot of energy, without changing energy consumption habits.

With these statistics in mind, what can companies do today to make net-zero a reality?

How Do We Transition to Net-Zero Emissions Energy Systems Faster?

net zero emissions blue lake rancheria
Communities like Blue Lake Rancheria have committed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Here’s the good news for organizations: If you want to transition to net-zero emissions, don’t worry about a one-to-one energy replacement.

Renewables avoid rejected energy, so we only need to replace 60% of fossil fuels to get to net-zero emissions. And we’re already nearly 20% of the way there.

Other ideas to keep in mind as you create your net-zero emissions targets and milestone goals:

  • Optimize. With energy efficiency, the payback can be substantial. The more efficient we are, the less emissions we need to reduce.
  • Electrify. Eliminate the combustion of fossil fuels and make the switch to electricity, particularly in the transportation and manufacturing sectors.
  • Decarbonize. Renewables have a starring role in getting to net-zero, so now is the time to prioritize adding far more renewables to our energy mix. Along with clean energy generation from wind and solar, adding energy storage takes the uncertainty out of the equation, and renewables-powered microgrids bring additional resiliency.

With falling solar, wind and battery costs, organizations like Blue Lake Rancheria are leading the way and making the commitment to reach net-zero emissions real.

The federally recognized Native American tribe in northwestern California is finding solutions to reduce their carbon footprint. With so many renewable tools to make it work, they’re tracking to be 100% emissions-free by the next decade.

So, the data is clear: Getting to net-zero emissions is possible. And the variety of renewables financing options are also making it easier to hit your net-zero targets.

Making the transition is less of a question of technology and more of a deliberate decision to prioritize investments in clean, sustainable energy.

The clean energy choices we make today will help determine our future. We’ve proved we can do this, so let’s make our net-zero emissions goals a reality!

If you have net-zero goals and milestones to meet, the shift to renewables may be easier than you think. Let’s explore solutions and options designed to help you reach your goals.



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