NYS can achieve 2050 carbon goals with Earth’s help

By delving into scientific, technological, environmental and economic data, Cornell Engineering researchers have examined whether New York could achieve a statewide carbon-free economy by 2050.

Their finding: Yes, New York can reach this goal – and do it with five years to spare.

Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering and a Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Ning Zhao, a doctoral student in the Process-Energy-Environmental Systems Engineering (PEESE) lab, examined a variety of carbon-neutral energy systems and decarbonization methods after the state passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in July 2019.

Their new paper, “Can Renewable Generation, Energy Storage and Energy Efficient Technologies Enable Carbon Neutral Energy Transition?” was published Dec. 1 in Applied Energy.

“Now we have a 2050 ‘net zero’ target,” said You, an associate director of Cornell Energy Systems Institute and a faculty fellow in the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “As New Yorkers, we can commit to making the needed changes on renewable energy transition for electricity and space heating. The law’s goals are very feasible from economic and technological perspectives.”

Among their research highlights:

  • By 2050, offshore wind energy will likely be the main source of electricity for the state;
  • Natural gas will play a role at the early stage of carbon neutral energy transition for both power and space heating sectors, but will approach obsolescence between 2040 and 2050;
  • Geothermal heating (extracting heat from the Earth) and/or electric air heat pumps will become the top methods to heat homes and buildings, replacing natural gas;
  • Solar energy will play an important but limited role, the researchers said, due to a lack of winter-time sunlight and other more economically competitive sustainable energy options;
  • Geothermal technology will play a key role in decarbonizing New York state, but when paired with a carbon tax, the state’s economy will become sustainably green more quickly – possibly by 2045, according to the scientists.

The CLCPA directs New York state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030, and to have no less than an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. The law also dictates that the state will have 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040.

New York is one of the most aggressive states in the U.S. in terms of committing itself to create a fully carbon-free statewide economy.

While the state is committed to fight climate change, natural gas is the dominant form of heating currently. “In the near-term natural gas is a bridge fuel to help us for our decarbonization objective,” You said. “Our work shows that natural gas will decline to zero by 2044, as we put geothermal and heat pump methods in place.”

To motivate public utility companies and New Yorkers to make the needed changes, You and Zhao suggest partnering a carbon tax with the green ideas, so that New York will enjoy a faster trajectory to force out fossil energy.

“Carbon taxes have already been imposed in parts of Europe and Asia,” You said. “We don’t have it right now here in the United States. We can emit as much greenhouse gas as we want, without any penalty.

“This concept of a carbon tax has been considered by many states and regions,” he said. “The key point is to figure out the right tax policy and understand how the economy will be affected.”

This work is supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation and Cornell Atkinson.

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