Policy ForumEnergy and Climate

Fossil electricity retirement deadlines for a just transition

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Science  04 Dec 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6521, pp. 1171-1173
DOI: 10.1126/science.abe0375

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Summary

Decarbonizing the electricity sector is critical for addressing climate change, particularly given the expected role of an expanded clean electricity system for home heating, transportation, and industry (1). This will require vast investment in new infrastructure such as renewable-energy power plants and batteries. Absent major investment in carbon-capture equipment or fuel switching, it will also require the retirement of carbon-based power plants. Both motivate explicit attention to a “just transition” (2) that ensures material well-being and distributional justice for individuals and communities affected by a transition from fossil to nonfossil electricity systems (3). Determining which assets are “stranded,” or required to close earlier than expected absent policy, is vital for managing compensation for remaining debt and/or lost revenue (4, 5). Here, I introduce a generator-level model to show that in the United States, a 2035 electricity decarbonization deadline, as proposed by President-elect Biden and the 2020 Democratic party platform (6, 7), would strand only about 15% of fossil capacity-years and 20% of job-years, which is unusually low from a global perspective [see supplementary materials (SM)] (4). Such insights into the location and timing of potential plant closures are critical for informing specific, coordinated, and locally grounded planning, which can substantially improve transition outcomes but is neither widespread nor supported by a national framework (8).

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