Cost to reach emis­sion goals big un­known

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By David R. Baker

By the mid­dle of this cen­tury, Gov. Jerry Brown wants Cal­i­for­nia to pull more green­house gases out of the at­mos­phere ev­ery year than it puts in.

That vi­sion will al­most cer­tainly cost Cal­i­for­ni­ans. No one can say how much, how­ever, be­cause no one quite knows how we’ll achieve it.

Cal­i­for­nia has years of ex­pe­ri­ence ramp­ing up its use of re­new­able power, plug­ging ever more so­lar plants and wind tur­bines into the grid.

But elim­i­nat­ing the state’s green­house gas emis­sions al­to­gether by 2045 — the goal of an ex­ec­u­tive or­der Brown signed last week — will re­quire de­car­boniz­ing sec­tors of the econ­omy that Cal­i­for­nia’s cli­mate reg­u­la­tions have not yet ad­dressed, such as

agri­cul­ture. It will re­quire bet­ter, cheaper ways to store power, electrifying all cars on Cal­i­for­nia roads and forc­ing air­lines to switch to re­new­able jet fuel.

Then comes the truly hard part.

The tech­nol­ogy ex­ists for re­mov­ing car­bon diox­ide, the main green­house gas, from the air. Even the most op­ti­mistic fore­casts project that do­ing so will be ex­pen­sive.

And at least for now, there’s no busi­ness model for it. When util­ity com­pa­nies buy elec­tric­ity from a wind farm, it re­places elec­tric­ity they would have oth­er­wise bought from con­ven­tional power plants. Pay­ing some­one to suck car­bon from the at­mos­phere, in con­trast, would be an ad­di­tive ex­pense.

“Rel­a­tive to what we’re do­ing to­day, some­body’s go­ing to have to pay the bill,” said James Mul­li­gan, who has writ­ten about car­bon removal strate­gies for the World Re­sources In­sti­tute think tank. “Whether it’s the tax­payer, the (util­ity) ratepayer, or the share­holder or what have you — it’s got to come out of some­body’s pocket.”

Brown es­tab­lished the car­bon-nega­tive goal on the eve of last week’s Global Cli­mate Ac­tion Sum­mit in San Fran­cisco, which gath­ered gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from around the world. He ac­knowl­edged dur­ing the event that the path would not nec­es­sar­ily be easy.

“That’s the most am­bi­tious goal of any­where in the world,” Brown said. “It doesn’t mean we’re there yet.”

How much will it cost? The Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board, which runs most of the state’s cli­mate goals, does not yet have a cost es­ti­mate for reach­ing car­bon neu­tral­ity, said spokesman Stan­ley Young. Or for go­ing nega­tive.

Even the rel­a­tively straight­for­ward task of get­ting all of the state’s elec­tric­ity from car­bon-free sources —a 2045 goal es­tab­lished in a bill that Brown signed into law last week — has an un­known price tag. Nei­ther Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. nor South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son, the state’s two largest elec­tric util­i­ties, have es­ti­mates.

PG&E spokes­woman Lynsey Paulo noted that it’s not just a mat­ter of buy­ing more re­new­able power. The com­pany will need more large-scale en­ergy stor­age, as well as up­grades to its elec­tric­ity trans­mis­sion and dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tems to move en­ergy from new re­new­able fa­cil­i­ties.

“You can put us in the camp of, ‘We don’t know,’ ” Paulo said.

And yet, while reach­ing

“That’s the most am­bi­tious goal of any­where in the world. It doesn’t mean we’re there yet.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, on the car­bon-nega­tive goal he set with an ex­ec­u­tive or­der to elim­i­nate the state’s green­house gas emis­sions by 2045 car­bon neu­tral­ity and be­yond poses costs, so does run­away cli­mate change — although Cal­i­for­nia, of course, can hardly solve a global prob­lem alone.

“We do know the cost of not do­ing any­thing is go­ing to be re­ally ex­pen­sive and po­ten­tially dis­as­trous for our econ­omy over time,” said Laura Wis­land, a se­nior en­ergy an­a­lyst at the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists. “So we can’t do noth­ing.”

Com­pa­nies such as Tesla are al­ready plug­ging large bat­ter­ies into the state’s grid, work­ing with PG&E and the other util­i­ties. And costs are fall­ing. Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance es­ti­mates that the lev­elized cost of en­ergy from util­ity-size bat­ter­ies — a mea­sure that in­cludes the costs of in­stalling and main­tain­ing a fa­cil­ity over time — has plunged al­most 80 per­cent since 2010 and will drop an ad­di­tional 66 per­cent by 2030.

Tum­bling prices for lithium-ion bat­ter­ies should make elec­tric cars more af­ford­able. Whether all car buy­ers will find them de­sir­able is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

Trans­porta­tion re­mains the state’s sin­gle largest source of green­house gases, and emis­sions from the sec­tor have risen in re­cent years even as the state’s over­all emis­sions have fallen. Although sales of elec­tric cars are ris­ing, they still ac­count for just 3.3 per­cent of new car reg­is­tra­tions in the state, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia New Car Deal­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The state’s agri­cul­ture in­dus­try pro­duces about one­fifth as many green­house gas emis­sions as the trans­porta­tion sec­tor, but it’s still sig­nif­i­cant — emit­ting more than 33 mil­lion met­ric tons per year. But farms aren’t in­cluded in Cal­i­for­nia’s ca­pand-trade sys­tem for cut­ting emis­sions in other parts of the econ­omy. And it’s un­clear how to cap­ture emis­sions of meth­ane — a po­tent green­house gas — from flat­u­lent cows.

Then there’s the ques­tion of ac­tu­ally re­mov­ing CO2 or other green­house gases once they’ve en­tered the at­mos­phere.

Ex­pand­ing forests can do that, as can pro­tect­ing ex­ist­ing ones from fires and other threats. But the pop­u­la­tion of Cal­i­for­nia and the world is still grow­ing, re­quir­ing more land to grow food, so op­por­tu­ni­ties to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease forested land may be lim­ited. In agri­cul­ture, plant­ing cover crops at times of the year when the land would oth­er­wise lie fal­low can se­quester some car­bon, as well as im­prove the fer­til­ity of the soil. But again, it may not be a large-scale so­lu­tion.

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

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