24/7 Carbon-Decarbonization Goals: How Does "24/7 Carbon-Free Energy" Stack Up?

posted by Kristen Weaverling on Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Earlier this year, Des Moines made headlines with the passage of an ambitious city-wide 100% clean energy resolution. If these announcements are starting to sound familiar to you, there’s a reason why — to date, over 170 cities across the country have committed to 100% clean energy, and that list is expected to grow.   

So what exactly makes the news out of Des Moines so groundbreaking? That answer boils down to its unique “24/7 carbon-free energy” language. If that term alone leaves you with more questions than answers, you’re not alone. That’s why IEC created a short video to fill in some of the blanks.  

In essence, 24/7 carbon-free energy demands that at any given moment, the electricity being utilized is coming from 100% emission-free sources. Today when you turn on your lights, even if you’ve signed up for your utility company’s renewable energy program, that power is supplied from a mix of clean energy as well as power from coal and fossil gas plants. A 24/7 vision seeks to close this gap and eliminate these emission-producing power sources from the equation.   

This around-the-clock clean energy generation goes above and beyond more traditional clean energy definitions, which often utilize tools like carbon offsets to reach their clean energy goals. You may be familiar with the following terms:  

Carbon Neutral: this term calls for the entity to offset any carbon emissions by removing an equal amount of carbon from the air. This can be accomplished via carbon sequestration tactics or carbon offsets, which are certificates available for purchase representing the reduction of one metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. By this definition, cities are still permitted to emit carbon, they just need to compensate for it.   

Net-zero: this term is often used interchangeably with carbon neutral. One key difference, however, is that net-zero is aligned to a 1.5-degree science-based reduction target which is generally considered more ambitious and requires more strategy than carbon-neutral goals.  

Carbon negative: means that an action goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  

24/7 carbon-free goals differ from these better-known commitments. Rather than offsetting or compensating for carbon emissions, this goal seeks to avoid those emissions altogether. Instead, customers draw energy exclusively from carbon-free sources.   

In Iowa, our utilities are not doing enough to meet this target. MidAmerican Energy claims to be on course to supply its customers with 100% clean energy. What it fails to make clear is that the company continues to operate coal plants to produce energy beyond their Iowa customers' needs, in order to export dirty energy out-of-state for additional profit. These loopholes are why specific, firm commitments like 24/7 carbon-free energy are needed.   

In lieu of leadership at the utility level, local governments and corporations are stepping up to the plate. Last year, Google unveiled plans to reach 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030 — a first-of-its-kind goal from a corporation of its scale. Alongside businesses, local entities like cities and counties can be influential drivers of change and will continue to be at the forefront of climate action.  

So how do we get to 24/7 carbon-free energy? To ensure clean energy is accessible every time it's needed, we’ll need to invest in storage technologies. In order to adequately scale our renewable energy fleets, we’ll need to employ energy efficiency measures so that these projects can maximize their economic potential. 24/7 carbon-free energy goals are ambitious but achievable and absolutely necessary to ensure a just and timely clean energy transition.   

About The Author

Kristen Weaverling joined the Iowa Environmental Council in 2020 and is now in the role of Energy and Climate Project Manager. Before starting at IEC, she spent several years implementing energy efficiency programs for small business customers on behalf of utility companies here in Iowa. She also ... read more