Decarbonization is a buzzword bandied about in policy and corporate circles. But defining it and planning for it are separate challenges. The Low-Carbon Resources Initiative is charting such a course — an effort led by Electric Power Research Institute and the Gas Technology Institute.
This five-year initiative brings together industry stakeholders to accelerate development and to demonstrate low-and zero-carbon energy technologies through clean energy research and development. And it has raised $100 million in funding from at least 33 corporate sponsors. It doesn’t offer a silver-bullet; rather, it includes a portfolio of options using fuels and technologies to reach net-zero and it focuses on four core pathways: energy efficiency, cleaning the electric grid, efficient electrification, and using low-carbon energy sources.
“The goal is to leverage these dollars 10 times — to start to help accelerate technology forward,” says Neva Espinoza, vice president of energy supply and low-carbon resources for the electric institute, in a Zoom interview. “The more options, the more affordable and the easier it will be to main reliability.”
If the aim is to get to “100% renewables,” then energy storage must be developed, using battery and hydrogen as vehicles. If “zero-carbon” is the goal, then using nuclear energy is instrumental — the most reliable no-carbon electric generation fuel that runs all-day, every day. And if the overall objective is to get to “net-zero,” then the mitigation of carbon sources through carbon capture and sequestration is a must.
Among the companies participating in the low-carbon initiative are Alliant
The United States has reduced its annual energy-related CO2 release by about 1 billion tons since 2005. That represents a 14% reduction even as the U.S. economy grew by 28%. That fact runs counter to tradition, which has emissions and economic growth moving in tandem. By migrating to cleaner-burning fuels and by using energy efficiency technologies, however, that link has been broken.
Double the Pace
The low carbon initiative says to reach mid-century targets of 80 percent CO2 reductions, the U.S. will have to double the current pace over the next 15 years. Indeed, the focus will be on energy efficiency, decarbonized electricity, and electrification in transportation, buildings, and industry.
“We know that decarbonization is a monumental challenge,” says Mike Rutkowski, senior vice president at the Gas Technology Institute, on the same Zoom call. “Net-zero will be hard by mid-century. Today’s technologies won’t get us there. We need a portfolio of technologies. Our initiative will bring scale and financial leverage — working with industry sponsors to multiply successes. This will allow us to meet this global challenge. Time is running out. We have those technologies commercially ready in the 2030 time frame.”
Consider hydrogen, which is now used all over the world to the tune of 70 million tons a year: Natural gas is now the primary fuel used to make hydrogen, accounting for 75% of all such production. In fact, 98% of hydrogen production comes from using carbon-intensive sources and most of that is unmitigated or neither captured nor stored. So the low-carbon initiative will zero-in on reducing CO2 emissions through new technologies and by using green hydrogen created from wind and solar energies.
That includes reducing the cost of state-of-the-art electrolyzers that split apart hydrogen and oxygen from water. That pure hydrogen gas is then stored in a cylinder or tank before it is piped into a fuel cell, which uses hydrogen to generate electricity. And there are no emissions associated with it and the only byproduct is clean water.
Electrification of the economy is a critical path forward — especially in the transport sector, the group says. And if more and more cars are sucking up the electricity produced by utilities, it will require modern and flexible grids that can handle not just greater wear-and-tear but also the flow of more green electrons.
At the same time, an electric-charging infrastructure has to be well-placed and not just in city centers but also in disadvantaged communities, all while cities move away from dirty buses to those that run on electricity. While American citizens will be spending more on electricity usage, that cost will be offset by reduced gasoline expenses, the low carbon initiative says.
The Need for More Green — Money
And the impact on natural gas? Rutkowski, with the Gas Technology Institute, says that the gas infrastructure can store and transport alternative fuels. The pipelines, for example, can also move hydrogen — up to 20% by volume. The goal is not to leave any stranded infrastructure and to possibly retrofit those systems to meet the needs of a low-carbon world. Moreover, natural gas is used to firm-up wind and solar when the weather does not permit it.
“This is more of a smooth turn than a sharp pivot. There will be a continuing need for fossil fuels during the transition,” says Rutkowski. “It is possible to get to net-zero by mid-century. If we scale-up, the technologies will materialize and we will have a smooth transition. But time is already running short.”
“It is a steep hill to climb and we can get there,” adds Espinoza, with the Electric Power Research Institute. “But it will take a lot of money.”
Enter the Low-Carbon Resource Initiative, which is harnessing the resources and the brainpower necessary to hit net-zero — a movement that is happening economy-wide. It is not just electric utilities that are buying in. It’s also the cement, airlines, and shipping industries. Each enterprise has a vested interest. But if the technologies to allow success reach fruition, then today’s companies may remain viable while also contributing to a cleaner and healthier society.