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Electricians David Livingston, left, and Mario Rojas with 1 Sun Solar inspects solar panels in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A new report from environmental groups concludes that Nevada will not meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals with existing policies, and it urges the state to adopt an ambitious approach, including a transition to roughly 80 percent renewable energy by 2030. 

The report comes as Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration evaluates a strategy for reducing emissions to zero or near-zero by 2050. The state’s strategy, which is being developed across agencies as part of the Nevada Climate Initiative, is scheduled to be sent to the governor by Dec. 1.

The report, written by GridLab, Evolved Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, offers an early glimpse into some of the policies around decarbonization that are likely to come up in the Legislature, in regulatory bodies and in local governments over the next several decades as the state — and the world — looks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that set the state’s first ever emission reduction targets. The legislation, SB 254, recognized the threat of climate change and spelled out benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero or near-zero within the next three decades. The reduction targets were designed to align with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, which the U.S. is expected to rejoin under a Biden administration. 

If the state intends to meet the Legislature’s goals for reducing emissions, the authors of the new report argue that the state must act swiftly to retire coal-fired power plants, transition to electric vehicles and begin to move away from natural gas in homes and businesses.

The report concluded that the modeling by Evolved Energy, a research firm, “shows us that the state will fail to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals without new policies, fast power emissions reductions, and near-complete electrification of building and transportation.”

In addition, the report emphasized the need for decarbonization that considers “inequality and inequity in program design,” stressing that many residents most affected by climate change are those who already bear a high energy burden, the percentage of income spent on energy and fuel.

But the report’s recommendations could face political obstacles. Fully implementing the policies, in many cases, will need the backing of not only the Legislature, but state agencies, regulators, utility providers and local governments from across the state.

Much of the report focuses on the power sector. NV Energy has committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy and has proposed numerous solar projects in recent years. 

Still, there remain questions about when and how that transition would occur. Although the report finds that decarbonization can occur without significantly raising fuel costs, some organizations have already started to insert cost as a reason to take a cautious approach.

Proposals to transition away from natural gas in businesses and homes will likely face pushback from Southwest Gas. The utility provides natural gas service across the state, is expanding its service and is seeing continued demand for connections in most newly constructed homes.

“When you are passing significant policies in the Legislature, there are always going to be tough conversations,” said Elspeth DiMarzio, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “I think those will happen and I think we welcome those."

“We’re confident this is not only what Nevada has to do for its environment, but I think the economics also make sense for the state,” added DiMarzio, an author of the report.

Tackling power sector emissions

In the short-term, the new report finds that a lot depends on what happens with Nevada’s two remaining coal-fired power plants: the North Valmy Generating Station and the TS Power Plant.

Both units of the Valmy plant, owned by NV Energy and Idaho Power, are expected to go offline by 2025. The TS Power Plant, owned by Nevada Gold Mines, is being converted to a dual-fuel coal-gas operation. But if all coal units continue operating past 2025, the report finds that other aspects of the economy, like transportation and indoor heating, will have to electrify faster.

“The carbon emissions that coal plants have is so significant,” DiMarzio said.

Continuing to decarbonize the electric sector, the report concludes, is a priority, and efforts are already underway to do so. Nevada has seen an increase in large-scale solar projects. And on Tuesday, voters approved Question 6, a ballot measure that will amend the Nevada Constitution and require energy providers to have a renewable portfolio of at least 50 percent by 2030. 

But as The Nevada Independent has reported in the past, the 50 percent standard will likely leave the state shy of its 2030 target: to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent compared to 2005 levels. Under most decarbonization scenarios in the report, doing so would require a roughly 90 percent reduction in power-sector carbon emissions, compared to 2005. 

It would also require a renewable portfolio standard of about 80 percent. 

There is another reason that is important, the report’s authors said. The report advocates an approach to decarbonization — a similar one being taken elsewhere in the country — that relies on the electrification of other economic sectors: transportation, buildings and industrial activities.

Although the U.S. grid has seen a transition from coal over the past decade, the power sector still heavily relies on natural gas, including in Nevada. A swift transition toward more renewable energy would make it possible to electrify other sectors without relying on emitting fossil fuel.

Here’s how the report put it: “A low-emissions power sector allows other sectors, especially transportation and buildings, to rely on electrification as a key decarbonization strategy.”

An equitable transportation transition

The report urges policymakers to consider the equity implications of future policy decisions, especially around electrification in the transportation sector. Cars and trucks are responsible for most of the pollution from small particulate matter, in addition to a significant chunk of carbon emissions. Those emissions disproportionately affect frontline communities, the report found.

“Emissions are concentrated in socioeconomically vulnerable census tracts and are also higher along transportation corridors, indicating the importance of addressing pollution from heavy-duty vehicles,” the report said, emphasizing the need for emission reductions in heavy-duty fleets.

To meet the state’s climate goals, the report said that electric vehicles should comprise at least 25 percent of sales for light-duty vehicles, such as commercial cars and trucks, by 2026. Four years later, more than half of vehicle sales should be electric to stay on track, the report said. 

“We have to do a lot to get to 2030,” said Dylan Sullivan, who co-authored the report as a senior scientist and clean energy program manager with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

He stressed that it is the direction that the industry is already headed, as projections suggest an increasing supply of commercial electric vehicles in the market.

But Sullivan, echoing the report, said that policymakers need to consider the equity implications of electrifying transportation. The report suggests that one way of doing that would be to prioritize electrification in areas, such as highway corridors, that are disproportionately affected by pollution. Another option, the report says, would be to create incentive programs that ensure eligibility for lower-income households. 

The report offers an array of policy options, emphasizing the need to decrease pollution from emissions-intensive medium and heavy-duty vehicles, like freight trucks. That segment of the transportation sector is so emissions-intensive that cumulative emissions could continue to rise, even as commercial vehicles electrify, the report found.

Policymakers, the report said, could address that segment of the transportation sector with the adoption of new rules as well as by working with the industry to reduce emissions. 

For transitioning the transportation sector, the report proposes other policies: require utility investment in electric vehicle infrastructure, adopt a zero-emission vehicle program, invest in more public transportation infrastructure and close smog check exemptions for classic cars.

Sullivan said that the policies in the report are only recommendations. Instead, he said that the report is meant to reflect the ambition of what it will take to meet the state's climate goals, showing “the scale of what the state needs to be aiming for in the next few years.”

Where buildings fit in

Buildings are not often thought of as a climate problem or a climate solution.

The report identifies them as both. Most buildings in Nevada rely on natural gas for cooking, heating water and heating homes. In addition, buildings suck up a lot of power. They need air conditioning in the summertime, a demand that is only increasing as the climate changes. As new homes are built, the report finds that “building sector emissions are expected to increase.”

In the report’s projections of what is necessary to meet the 2050 target, natural gas use must be gradually phased out, especially after 2030. The report also found that new homes should be more energy efficient, and existing homes should be retrofitted to increase their efficiency.

Efficiency can also help reduce bills for customers, the report found, especially in areas where residents have a high energy burden and are expected to experience more heat in the coming decades.

The report projects that about 45 percent of residential appliances and about 25 percent of commercial space and water heating must be electric by 2030 for the state to meet its goals.

To get there, the report recommended adopting appliance standards and ensuring that new buildings move to all-electric appliances. It also said the state should stop expanded investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, which can take about 60 years to pay off. 

The report advocates for requiring gas utilities to undergo a planning process, similar to what is required of electric utilities. Such a process could weigh future investments against demand for gas and the state’s climate goals. Environmentalists have argued that natural gas should not be the default option for heating buildings. 

Scott Leedom, the utility’s director of public affairs, said he was concerned about the cost effects of transitioning from natural gas to electric. And he said transitioning to the grid “feels premature” when the power sector still gets the bulk of its energy from natural gas. 

"For us, it's important to consider the efficiency of the grid [an appliance is] plugging into,” he said.

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