THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION on Wednesday released a 168-page climate plan for 2050 that follows the same general playbook that’s been outlined in the past – increase production of clean electricity; use that electricity to electrify the energy-intensive transportation, building, and industrial sectors; and achieve net-zero emissions by removing additional carbon from the atmosphere using natural and engineered approaches.
The state’s goal for 2050 is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent compared to 1990 levels, and achieve the net-zero target by removing additional emissions from the atmosphere.
It’s a very ambitious undertaking, simplistic in concept but very difficult in execution. The climate plan wrestles with all the variables, and comes to some tentative conclusions.
“Massachusetts has positioned itself such that the near-term components of the path to net zero are clear, with the flexibility to adapt to new technologies if and when they become available and economical,” the climate plan says. “A combination of offshore wind, hydroelectricity, solar photovoltaics, and existing regional generation such as nuclear energy—together with investments in smart grid management and energy storage—will support a decarbonized electricity grid. Electric vehicles and heat pumps represent scalable technologies that can help transition our transportation and buildings to zero emissions. In other areas, the precise path to a net zero economy is uncertain. Many analysts expect that mechanisms to support carbon removal from the atmosphere will emerge over the next few decades, but exactly what approaches will be used and at what cost remains to be seen.”
As the transportation and building sectors shift from fossil fuels to clean electricity, the plan estimates demand for power will more than double from 50 terrawatt hours in 2020 to more than 120 in 2050. To meet that demand, the plan projects the state will need massive amounts of solar (27 gigawatts, compared to 3.3 in 2020, according to a new state climate dashboard) and wind resources (24 gigawatts, compared to 3.7 in 2020).
The climate plan calls for major changes in the way clean energy is procured and integrated into the power grid. Currently, the state procures clean energy through complicated bidding processes mandated by states and orchestrated through utilities. According to the climate plan, that strategy is likely to continue through 2024, but after that the goal is to create a clean energy marketplace in New England where producers and consumers of clean electricity would sell and buy power. The goal is to get the state out of the procurement business, and turn that job over to the private sector.
The climate plan also calls for developing an offshore transmission system that would deliver electricity from wind farms to places along the coast where it is needed. The plan calls it a “plug and play” system. The plan also envisions two-way communication between energy-consuming appliances and the grid, allowing grid operators to manage demand to avoid peaks and valleys in energy consumption and reduce emissions.
While Gov.-elect Maura Healey has called for a grid powered by 100 percent clean energy by 2030, the Baker administration’s climate plan says the grid will still rely on power generated using natural gas in 2050.
“Some natural gas generators will continue to be necessary in 2050 to operate during times of low wind and solar availability,” the climate plan says. “However, those gas generators are expected to produce a small share of annual electricity generation and, thus, greenhouse gas emissions.”
One other area the climate plan dives into in some detail is the use of nature, specifically “natural and working lands,” to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The plan says these lands in 2020 absorbed nearly 7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. About 85 percent of the carbon was absorbed by forest land, which accounts for 56 percent of the total land area in the state.
The plan says carbon sequestration grew steadily in Massachusetts in the 1990s and 2000s, but has been slowing in recent decades with the loss of 5,000 to 7,000 acres of forest a year. Massachusetts forest land on average is also mature (60 to 100 years old), and carbon consumption tends to start declining with age.
Hurricanes, development, and other “ecological disturbances,” some of them brought about by climate change, could accelerate the decline in carbon sequestration.
To reverse the trend, the climate plan recommends conservation of existing forested lands (an additional 685,000 acres would need protection) and the planting of at least 64,400 additional acres of trees by 2050.
The climate plan says all of these strategies may still not be enough to reach net zero by 2050, and recommends “some combination of engineered carbon dioxide removal and out-of-state nature-based carbon sequestration.”