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Can clean air and growth happen together? New study says it already is

Report details drops in greenhouse gas emissions even in good economies

SHARE Can clean air and growth happen together? New study says it already is

PacifiCorp Energy’s Lake Side Power Plant in Vineyard is photographed on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new report details that Utah is among 41 states and the District of Columbia to achieve a decline in greenhouse gas emissions over a 12-year period even as economies grew at a rapid pace.

The work by the World Resources Institute underscores that clean energy and a thriving economy can go hand in hand and not work against each other.

“America’s New Climate Economy” said that overall, from 2005 to 2018, the U.S. gross domestic product increased by 25% even in the midst of a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, or CO2, of 12%.

Utah saw its GDP grow by over 40% between 2005 and 2017, while its greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 12.9% over the same period.

“Today, the rapid deployment of solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles (EVs) and energy efficiency technologies provides a glimpse of what is possible in the transition to a low-carbon economy,” the report said. “Nearly every segment of the low-carbon market is experiencing rapid price declines as a result of technological advancements and market deployment.”

The report points to a variety of factors at play in the decrease of carbon emissions, including a shift from coal to natural gas, greater embrace of renewable energy and progress made in vehicle emission standards.

Specifically, it notes an increased use of solar energy of 50% annually over the last decade, and U.S. wind power that has more than tripled over the last 10 years. In September 2019, there were 1.3 million electric vehicles on the nation’s roadways, compared to just a few hundred 10 years ago.

More clean energy transition looms in the future as well, with PacifiCorp proposing to close four coal-fired power plants in Wyoming that will be replaced with wind, solar and storage. It is a move estimated to save its customers $248 million over the next 20 years.

Authors of the report note that the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak is emphasizing the fact that the United States needs to create a strong foundation that can enable the American economy to weather the threats and challenges in an effective way.

“Doubling down on low-carbon investment cannot only act as a near-term stimulus to reboot the American economy, but over the long-term it also can position the United States to address the threat posed by climate change,” the report said.

There are continuing vulnerabilities, however, the report notes.

After federal investments in research and development during the 1990s made the technology more feasible, U.S. companies moved battery production to East Asian countries. These countries, and especially China, have a large production advantage, which may also enable them to take the leading position in technology

“By early 2019, of 316 gigawatt-hours of global lithium cell manufacturing capacity, China accounted for 73% and the United States for 12%,” the report said.

And despite a record investment of $78.3 billion in clean energy in 2019 by the United States, it still lags behind China in its spending on renewable energy or electric transportation.

The United States, though, is making strides in the manufacturing of advanced small modular nuclear reactors that the report said could represent an area of opportunity for the country if they become cost competitive with other low-carbon technologies.

“Given their size and operational flexibility, (the reactors) can also have significant application in industries by substituting for fossil energy used for industrial heat processes, in addition to their use for power generation,” the report said. “Of course, critical issues involving safety, nonproliferation, waste disposal and potential impacts on local communities will have to be fully addressed.”

There are about two dozen designs for the modular reactors that are trying to break into the market, but the report said NuScale Power’s design has made the greatest progress toward Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval, and the company has signed memorandums with Canada, Jordan and Romania for deploying its technology.

The Idaho National Laboratory is poised to be the site for one of the NuScale modular nuclear reactors, which is supported by a consortium of Utah municipal power providers.

Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy, said the new report underscores the fact that there doesn’t have to be competition between a clean environment and a thriving economy.

“That is a false choice,” she said. “There is no choice between addressing climate change and our economy. It probably offers one of the best opportunities we have to build back and sustain for the long term.”

The United States has proven its capability to bounce back in the aftermath of crushing world wars and other economic challenges, and the COVID-19 pandemic will provide yet another platform to innovate and change, Wright added.

“I think we can use this time not just in Utah but across the nation to double down on carbon-free investments,” she said. “The WRI report illustrates the tremendous opportunities we have before us ... There is no reason to think we can’t be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and continue to grow our economy.”