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We can do it with a bold and rapid, but achievable, expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles and decarbonized buildings, all supported by a modernized grid. Plus, we don’t need to wait for breakthroughs—we can achieve our goals with the tools we already have.

"We can do it with a bold and rapid, but achievable, expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles and decarbonized buildings, all supported by a modernized grid. Plus, we don’t need to wait for breakthroughs—we can achieve our goals with the tools we already have." (Photo: istock)

Clean Energy Is America’s Next Frontier & Path to a Safer Climate

The Revolution Towards a Green Economy.

NRDC’s new report, America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future, shows how the United States can meet our short- and long-term climate goals relying primarily on today’s proven clean energy solutions—and with tremendous climate and health benefits that far surpass the cost.

We can do it with a bold and rapid, but achievable, expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles and decarbonized buildings, all supported by a modernized grid. Plus, we don’t need to wait for breakthroughs—we can achieve our goals with the tools we already have.

By taking advantage of our nation’s vast renewable resources and reducing energy waste across the U.S. economy, we can slash our reliance on imported and dirty fossil fuels by at least 70 percent. And our ambitious, but feasible, build-out of clean energy also decreases our reliance on riskier or more costly strategies like nuclear power and biomass. The benefits of NRDC’s approach vastly outweigh the costs by 7 to 1—so we need to keep pushing forward—hard—on renewable, efficient, and electric technologies.

What we found

NRDC teamed with the internationally recognized Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) consulting firm to model how the U.S. can reduce total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that developed countries, like the United States, will need to reduce national GHG emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Working with E3, NRDC carried out rigorous and complex modeling that can be directly compared with the results of E3’s previous analysis of U.S. emissions reductions potential, presented to the United Nations. NRDC also conducted additional in-house study to further examine and distill the modeling results, and both unpack the broader implications and develop near-term policies and priorities.

While different approaches have been suggested for America to achieve its “80 x 50” climate goal, NRDC’s pathway is unique because it relies only on proven clean energy technologies, which can achieve our climate goal most cost-effectively. Energy efficiency cuts waste, slashes our energy consumption, and saves households and businesses money. A high level of increasingly price-competitive renewable power allows us to affordably clean up our buildings and cars. And modernizing our electricity grid, which needs upgrades anyway, will connect all our clean energy resources together.   

NRDC’s pathway relies on four critical pollution-reduction strategies:

  1. Energy efficiency investments, along with electric cars and appliances, cut U.S. energy demand in half compared to our “no-action” reference case by 2050, avoiding significant amounts of power plant pollution. Multiple authorities, ranging from the respected National Academies to well-known consultancy McKinsey to expert energy-efficiency think-tanks conclude this level of energy savings is feasible, with top-performing companies and utilities already achieving them. Invisible Energy, by our colleague David Goldstein, describes efficiency’s nearly limitless potential.  Despite much progress on efficiency, however, almost 70 percent of all raw energy is still wasted in the United States. By eliminating that waste from where it’s produced to how it’s transmitted to how it’s used in our homes, buildings, cars and factories, the United States can use less, spend less, waste less, and pollute less.
  2. Wind and solar grow to provide at least 70 percent of our electricity supply in 2050, a roughly 13-fold increase from today. Including hydropower and geothermal, renewable electricity is 80 percent. This expansion is feasible and achievable. Renewable energy is already our country’s dominant source of new energy, thanks to continuing price declines and increasing industry experience with these technologies. We view our model results as showing a floor, not a ceiling. Much more renewables growth is possible. For instance, for technical reasons, our model doesn’t incorporate the fast-growing area of rooftop solar generation.
  3. Using clean electricity, our model directly displaces fossil fuels from our cars, homes, offices and factories. NRDC prioritizes electrification where it’s the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon, as with electric cars and electric heat pumps.
  4. For some of the remaining, limited harder-to-electrify niche uses, like airplanes or long-haul trucks, our model uses lower-emission fuels, such as sustainable biomass, synthetic gas derived from renewable electricity, and some carbon capture and storage, to reduce emissions.

To enable this clean energy transition, we need a modernized electricity grid. That will enable us to reliably integrate renewables and other clean technologies, to provide more clean electricity for America’s homes and businesses.

Particularly by maximizing energy efficiency—the cheapest, fastest, cleanest clean energy solution—our approach is less costly than virtually all comparable studies. Between 2015 and 2050, our energy system costs in our scenario are only 1 percent more than in the scenario where no action is taken, but it delivers climate and health benefits 7 times greater than these incremental costs. And in 2050, our approach actually costs less than business-as-usual. Although upfront capital investments in more efficient and electric appliance, buildings, and vehicles are needed, these smart energy-saving investments will yield enormous fuel savings in later years. While not modeled, our scenario is also likely the cheapest option after 2050 thanks to continuing fuel savings.

Our report also includes policy recommendations to move us forward at the federal, state and local levels. Our NRDC colleagues will explore these in the coming days as part of this series on our report’s implications.

Does NRDC’s pathway sound challenging? It will require a massive effort, but it’s all feasible, and states and cities across the nation already are taking the bold action needed. Besides, taking on such grand challenges is in America’s DNA.

The prize is clear: a truly 21st century energy system, more well-paying clean energy jobs, protection of our communities and outstanding natural resources, and renewed U.S. leadership on the global stage in next-generation energy technology. And a safer climate future.

© 2021 Natural Resources Defense Council

Vignesh Gowrishankar


Vignesh Gowrishankar explores policies and programs designed to promote energy efficiency and clean energy technologies, improve the electrical grid, and make the production of natural gas cleaner and safer. Before joining NRDC, he spent two years in Melbourne, Australia, where he served as a senior policy adviser on climate change preparedness and mitigation at the Department of Premier and Cabinet for the state of Victoria. Previously he was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. He attended the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, and received his PhD from Stanford University researching solar cells. He is based in New York City.

Amanda Levin

Amanda Levin

Amanda Levin is a policy analyst for NRDC's Climate & Clean Energy Program.

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