Balancing the Costs of the Clean Energy Transition: The Environmental Opportunities of Decarbonization

Posted to EPRI in the Utility Management Group
image credit: EPRI
Heidi Scarth's picture
Engineer/Scientist Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

Heidi Scarth is an Engineer/Scientist I at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). She is a member of the Energy Systems and Climate Analysis team, where she works primarily on policy...

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  • Mar 8, 2022

The electric power sector is entering a period of unprecedented transformation as it works to decarbonize and meet company, state, national and international clean energy targets to help mitigate and potentially avoid the worst impacts of global climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) asserted that impacts on the environment due to “past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets, and global sea level.” This conclusion contributed to many countries increasing the ambition of their greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction goals. One result is that electric power grids are undergoing a rapid period of transformation to help reduce emissions and mitigate existing climate change impacts.

This transformation creates a worldwide challenge for the energy sector: How to achieve extensive emissions reduction and low-carbon resources deployment while providing affordable, reliable, and environmentally sustainable energy in an equitable way? Transitioning to low-carbon or carbon-free generation has been colloquially labeled the “clean energy transition,” but what is clean energy, and how is it achieved? 

“Clean energy” can evoke images of renewable energy in the form of solar or wind generation. However, the extensive changes occurring in the power system sector to facilitate the low- or no-carbon transition encompass much more than these two types of generation. Clean energy may refer to technologies that will be deployed to meet decarbonization, the infrastructure needed for transmission and distribution, and all other aspects of the power system. The energy becomes “clean” when environmental impacts created by the system are avoided or mitigated in a way that balances the costs and benefits to support a healthy planet.

Increasingly, other critical considerations include how the clean energy transition will address legacy environmental impacts, today’s environmental challenges, and advance society towards an environmentally just future.

A recent publication from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) examines these issues through (1) evaluating how the energy system has historically impacted the environment, (2) highlighting actions that have been taken to mitigate these impacts, and (3) discussing future considerations that will be necessary to return to a healthy planet.
Key points for consideration: 

  • Addressing ongoing environmental impacts of fossil fuel generation is a central aspect of global climate change discussions and may inform decision-making at the company, state, and country levels. However, it may not be feasible to immediately remove fossil fuels from the generation mix until firm, dispatchable low-carbon resources can be deployed at scale.
  • Using existing financial cost-benefit analyses as primary policymaking and regulatory tools may not appropriately estimate the total costs and benefits of investments relating to clean energy, especially long-term environmental and human health impacts.
  • Remediating legacy environmental damages (damages that occurred before environmental regulations were enforced) has been largely successful. As decarbonization accelerates, there are remaining legacy impacts, and emerging challenges, that may need to be addressed to meet state, national, and international climate goals.
  •  Identifying new opportunities to include affected communities in the conversation, and to incorporate their input throughout all aspects of investment decision-making processes, is a potential benefit of the clean energy transition.


Given new global GHG reduction targets, along with state and federal policy changes, the clean energy transition is poised to occur rapidly. However, there may be significant obstacles to achieving a cost-benefit balance. GHG reductions are not the only avenue through which the power system may have impacted the environment. The industry continues to address legacy environmental issues, while mitigating environmental challenges with current and future operations. 

The clean energy transition requires a holistic view and a critical examination of all opportunities and challenges, so that the full scope of tangible and intangible benefits and impacts might be considered including potential impacts on air, land, water, species, and people. Considering the impact of environmental concerns on human, natural, and economic systems may help mitigate or avoid similar future impacts. 

Understanding legacy issues and seeking out similar, new impacts that might occur during and after the transition may be the first step in addressing the challenges the energy sector is facing today regarding new technologies, a changing policy and regulatory landscape, and the effects on environmental systems. 

Opportunities exist to create incentives, regulatory or otherwise, and to set precedents to encourage action in pursuit of a healthier planet. The inclusion of all lifecycle interactions of current and future technologies may provide an environmentally responsible foundation for clean energy. 

EPRI will continue to independently assess energy sector opportunities throughout the clean energy transformation to ensure the public has clean, safe, reliable, affordable, and equitable access to electricity across the globe.

For more information, please contact report co-authors Heidi Scarth ( or Lea Millet ( To read the entire EPRI report, click here

Founded in 1972, EPRI is the world's preeminent independent, non-profit energy research and development organization, with offices around the world.

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