Carnegie Mellon University
September 14, 2022

Open Energy Outlook Initiative launches with first report

Today, Carnegie Mellon University has launched the Open Energy Outlook (OEO) Initiative to develop and provide stakeholders with open-access models and databases to inform energy and climate policy related to U.S. energy futures. Co-led by Professor Paulina Jaramillo of Engineering and Public Policy, the OEO is an initiative of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University in partnership with NC State University, and with funding from the Sloan Foundation.

With this launch, the OEO initiative releases its first report, detailing the team's efforts to research and simulate the future of the U.S. energy system under different decarbonization pathways. The report outlines four potential decarbonization scenarios for the U.S. energy system over the next 30 years. In a scenario with no new policy towards decarbonization (beyond what was available in 2021), they estimate a modest 20 percent decrease in net emissions by 2050, while a scenario that meets net zero goals would likely involve heavy investment in renewables and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. This report is the first of a series the team will release, intended to aid energy researchers, policymakers, and industry professionals as they work towards a greener future.

Achieving net zero carbon emissions will require significant and sustained investment. For example, electrification efforts in buildings, industry, and transportation will require a substantial expansion of the country's electricity generation capacity. However, in this first report, the OEO team found that the marginal costs of achieving net zero are relatively low. Most of the costs in every scenario the researchers analyzed are for replacing and maintaining infrastructure, vehicles, and appliances, making any added costs for investment in decarbonization relatively small. The GDP of the U.S. is currently $21 trillion annually, and reaching net zero would require $2-4 trillion in added investment in decarbonization spread over the next 30 years.

“While $2-4 trillion sounds high, it represents less than 1% of the forecasted GDP from now until 2050,” said EPP Ph.D. student Katie Jordan, who was involved in the work. “The future costs of climate change, including damages from extreme weather events, responses to flooding and drought, and support for climate refugees, will almost certainly be higher than the cost of abating our carbon emissions.”

The difference is in how and where energy system stakeholders choose to invest. In the no policy scenario, petroleum and natural gas infrastructure investments remain. By contrast, reaching net zero would require a broader range of technologies, including a substantial expansion in renewable energy production and carbon management technologies. Such carbon management technologies include carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which can be used in Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) and industrial processes. Furthermore, direct air capture (DAC) could help manage residual CO2 emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors. As noted by researchers in the IPCC's sixth climate assessment report, CCS technologies are crucial to reducing current and future emissions. Jaramillo served as coordinating lead author for the transportation section of the IPCC's climate mitigation report. As an energy and climate researcher, she believes CSS and carbon dioxide removal will be needed.

“When the IPCC's report was released, the chair of the IPCC's working group III said that carbon management through CCS and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) are likely unavoidable if we want to meet the 1.5-degree target that prevents the worst climate change impacts,” said Jaramillo. “The results of our analysis are consistent with this message. However, DAC is just one of the technologies we will likely need. Our results show that electrification, hydrogen, and renewable energy resources are crucial to decarbonizing the US energy system.”

In the coming years, the OEO Initiative will continue developing the open-source models and database needed to analyze the social, economic, and environmental implications of the U.S. energy transition. Building these open-access tools is one of the initiative's primary goals. Aranya Venkatesh, the initiative's executive director, noted that these efforts will allow for transparent, replicable, and collaborative analysis that can support decision-making as the U.S. endeavors to reach it climate mitigation targets.

"Collaborative tools are a must-have today as the world works together to transition to a clean energy economy,” said Daniel Tkacik, executive director of the Scott Institute. “The Open Energy Outlook's open-source nature makes it a highly collaborative tool that can provide invaluable insight into how we will produce and consume energy during the transition."

 For more information about the OEO Initiative and ways to support its work, visit the OEO website.