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“De-carbonization Strategies To Lower Emissions”

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Ron Miller's picture
Principal Reliant Energy Solutions LLC

Ron Miller is an energy industry expert creating value by analyzing assets, markets, and power usage to identify, monetize, and implement profitable energy and emission reduction projects. He is...

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Lowering our globe’s emissions is a major effort, as will getting to a net-zero-carbon environment, and will require significant investment in new low-carbon infrastructure, along with key market incentives to change.

Zero-Carbon Approaches:

Energy production and use accounts for about 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however, there are three main strategies that can help countries meet energy needs with zero-carbon emissions: optimize, electrify and decarbonize. Essentially, all countries need to:

  1. Reduce energy use through improved efficiency (optimize);
  2. Shift energy demand to electricity and away from combustion of fossil fuels (electrify); and
  3. Shift entirely to zero-carbon technologies to generate electricity (decarbonize)

One problem in decarbonizing globally is that rapidly growing economies are seeing energy demand growing significantly, while in many developed economies, economic growth, energy use and emissions are decoupling. There is a constructive tension between these two groups of countries which greatly influences their vision for zero emissions.

A Realistic Way Forward For De-carbonization:

Over the years since 1990, when the United Nations General Assembly formally launched talks that led to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and despite continued talks, emissions are still rising at about 1 to 2 percent annually in spite of studies that indicate they need to decrease by 8 percent per year to be consistent with holding warming to 1.5 degrees C.

For a world not willing to change its industrial and agricultural systems, no major economy has ever cut emissions of warming gases that quickly. Even though we have seen numerous agreements, they require consensus, which creates a strong incentive for holdouts.

De-carbonization requires a string of technological revolutions in each of the major emitting sectors, such as electricity generation, cars, buildings, shipping, agriculture, aviation, and steel. In nearly every sector, the world isn’t far along in the technological revolutions needed for de-carbonization.

As subsidies wane, market forces will drive the growth of renewables. In electricity, much of the action must focus on expanding the use of solar and wind so that costs keep coming down. Coupled with declining renewable energy capital costs, government policy must look beyond just renewables, as in flexible gas-fired power plants that capture carbon pollution before it is released into the atmosphere, and to advanced nuclear plants with zero emissions. These plants will keep the grids reliable as they shift to more renewable power.

For emissions in the transportation sector, we will need policies focused on lowering the costs of electric vehicles, while subsidies decline as technology improves.

There are plenty of reports that indicate technologies for zero emissions are being developed, however, for deep de-carbonization, we will need both technology and business models that provide the right incentives for change.

Important Factors To Decarbonize:

There are at least three important factors now observed around the globe:

  1. Investments in energy efficiency, setting targets, and reducing energy demand
  2. Utilize hydropower as shown by Costa Rica and Ethiopia, which get almost all their electricity from clean sources. Additional hydropower investments are needed as electricity demand has grown, shown by the recent efforts of Brazil, Colombia and Kenya recently getting closer to zero-carbon
  3. Investment in non-hydro renewables such as wind, solar photovoltaics and geothermal. Costa Rica, Denmark and the UK all went from getting virtually none of their power from non-hydro renewables in 1990 to 20% or more by 2017, while Kenya has also grown its geothermal capacity

De-carbonization Development Cycle:

Each industrial sector has its own developmental cycle for moving toward lower emissions and de-carbonization as shown by Graph 1. The life cycle of low-carbon technology penetration into markets is the familiar S-shaped curve, with the emergence of a new technological system, its diffusion into widespread use, and then reconfiguration of whole markets.

Graph 1 – Progress of Sectors’ Low Carbon Transitions

 

 

Deep De-carbonization Strategies:

  • Reduce energy consumption
  • Use a diverse renewable portfolio of wind and solar across geographies
  • Increase imports and exports of power across the state’s transmission interties
  • Increase in responsive loads including flexible loads in buildings and industry, i.e. demand response
  • Switch end uses from fossil fuel to electricity

Summary:

For Planet Earth to move toward de-carbonization, we will need to:

  • Accelerate innovations in vehicle technologies through electrification,  connectivity, and automation
  • Increase transportation efficiency
  • Maximize use of renewable electrons through time with increased energy storage technologies

However, the real missing link won’t be the technology development, but a strategic approach to create incentives and markets to drive de-carbonization into our business and personal lives.

Copyright © November 2021 Ronald L. Miller All Rights Reserved

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 10, 2021
  1. Utilize hydropower as shown by Costa Rica and Ethiopia, which get almost all their electricity from clean sources. Additional hydropower investments are needed as electricity demand has grown, shown by the recent efforts of Brazil, Colombia and Kenya recently getting closer to zero-carbon

When it comes to scaling the energy transition, though, isn't it true that this is bound by geographical restrictions? Most of the places with plentiful hydropower potential see those flows already tapped and that's why they're able to reach such high renewable %, while those without the water resources really can't do anything to replicate those successes. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 10, 2021

Good point, Matt. Alan Rozich's recent article about the land-use impacts of investing in non-hydro renewables in developing countries should give pause to anyone who believes re-purposing farmland for generating electricity represents a sustainable solution.
The burden falls on the U.S. to lead the way on climate change, a country where each citizen generates forty times the carbon emissions of each Kenyan. Pointing fingers, for Americans, is not an option.

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 11, 2021

Thanks for your comments, Bob. Renewable energy as biopower crops and/or solar compete for land used for food production, and this is a very real sore spot in developing countries, Ghana in West Africa, included. Climate change initiatives should use the Pareto Principle (80/20) rule whereby the focus is on the highest emitters and those whose CO2 emissions continue to increase (China, India).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 11, 2021

"Climate change initiatives should use the Pareto Principle (80/20) rule whereby the focus is on the highest emitters and those whose CO2 emissions continue to increase (China, India)."

Americans, on a per-capita basis, are still responsible for twice the CO2 emissions of Chinese and six times those of Indians. Both countries have flatly stated they will not sacrifice economic development to meet climate change goals. And why should they? Americans are responsible for the bulk of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere. We've built our standard of living at the expense of climate - everyone's climate.

If we don't take the lead, no one will, and we aren't taking the lead.

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 13, 2021

Bob, interesting points on the per capital CO2 emissions over history. However, in the face of the US and EU retiring 49.2 GW of coal-fired plants during the last 10 years, China is building 250 GW of new coal plants in this decade. This will add to their world-leading pollution of CO2 that all of us will breathe (there is no Planet B and the air in China does not stay above China forever). The US is making progress: in 2018, the US reduced its CO2 emissions by 2.8%, one of only 3 countries of the 194  to sign the Paris Accord to make positive progress in CO2 reduction. If we really want to move the needle on global CO2 emissions, we need to incent polluting countries to change. Otherwise, we change, increase energy cost, while others pollute as their are no teeth in either the Paris Accord or COP26. Please see my article, https://energycentral.com/c/ec/how-effective-paris-agreement

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 14, 2021

"However, in the face of the US and EU retiring 49.2 GW of coal-fired plants during the last 10 years, China is building 250 GW of new coal plants in this decade."

Much like the U.S. did for over a century. When U.S. coal consumption finally peaked in 2005, it was after we had relied on it to achieve the highest standard of living in the world. Neither China nor India is there yet, and aren't even close. If you were born in China in 2021:
• Your life expectancy would be 4.2 years less than an American
• Your wife would be 52.6% more likely to die in childbirth
• Your kids would be 2.2 times more likely to die in infancy
• You'd be 38% less likely to have internet access
• You'd make 70% less money than your American counterparts
How do you propose we incent the Chinese to lower emissions, when at their stage of development we were burning coal as fast as we could pull it out of the ground? We can't, and without any way to enforce the provisions of COP26, it amounts to feelgood platitudes. It's worse than doing nothing.

Until the U.S. sets a standard for other countries to follow, limiting climate change will be hopeless. And though gas-fired electricity and vehicle efficiency standards have had a huge and positive effect on reducing U.S. emissions, gains will be progressively harder to come by. With 4% more electricity in the U.S. generated by burning coal in 2021 than in 2020, we're now officially going backwards - and sending the worse possible message at the worst possible time.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 15, 2021

Until the U.S. sets a standard for other countries to follow, limiting climate change will be hopeless. 

It's obviously important for the U.S. to worry about itself and decarbonize, but I also don't think us leading by example will suddenly see other countries copy our standards. For now, the lack of lead-by-example does undermine credibility and given other countries easy pickings to point fingers, but if/when we do get there I don't expect that will cause other nations to simply follow suit right away-- the challenge/excuse will simply shift (all this absent any sort of international agreement with teeth)

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 16, 2021

Bob, I appreciate your position and points, however, I don’t think there is any global directive that all inhabitants on Planet Earth must enjoy all of the benefits of American life, those benefits being won with hard work, a free enterprise system, and freedoms defended over 240 years of existence.

The only way you incent China or any other organization is impact their bottom line. Adding teeth to an agreement with incentives and penalties is the only way to get compliance (unlike Paris/COP26). If we stop buying Chinese products, their hard currency inflows cease and they may look for alternatives to this action.

I agree with your comment about COP26; the performance of the Paris Accord is abysmal, demonstrating that these conferences create a lot of talk, no action, glad-handing, and excessive emissions from untold private jets, all to attend a conference to clean up the environment.

Yes, American and Western Europe used coal as a base fuel for electricity for many years, but both have curtailed its use when the impact of emissions was fully-documented. In the face of this documentation, the West is changing (49.2 GW of retired coal plants in last decade), while China adds 5 times the amount in new coal plants.

Your comment on coal use in 2021 is correct, with this update from EIA, “The EIA said it expects 22% more U.S. coal-fired generation in 2021 than in 2020, marking the first year-on-year increase since 2014.” Very interesting EIA comment, “The cost of natural gas delivered to electric generators remained relatively low and stable between 2015 and 2020, but prices have been much higher this year, driving up coal demand, the EIA said.” The more government dictates a war on oil/gas that reduces supply, the higher the prices go, and with different pricing alternatives for fuels to generators.

https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/us-coal-fired-electricity-generation-rise-2021-eia-says-2021-10-18/

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 17, 2021

"I don’t think there is any global directive that all inhabitants on Planet Earth must enjoy all of the benefits of American life, those benefits being won with hard work, a free enterprise system, and freedoms defended over 240 years of existence."

Ron, as of 2019 the U.S. had emitted 410.2 gigatons (GT) of anthropogenic fossil fuel CO2e, out of a total of ~500 GT, over the course of history. Burning oil and coal were at least as responsible for our standard of living as hard work or a free enterprise system, neither of which is an exclusively American virtue. So say what you like about China building 250 GW of coal plants - it has a lot of catching up to do.

"If we really want to move the needle on global CO2 emissions, we need to incent polluting countries to change."

If we really want to move the needle on global CO2 emissions, first and foremost, we need to own a problem of our own making. Pointing fingers will get us nowhere.

 

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 17, 2021

Bob, I am not pointing fingers, just pointing out facts. Each person will process the facts as they see fit. Our record of reducing our CO2 emissions is a clear response to the global problem. Let's hope our Chinese colleagues will do the same.

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 11, 2021

Matt, yes hydro is topographically and hydrologically-driven, however, even in the U.S. there is a sizable list of potential hydropower sites/projects that have yet to be tapped/developed. The other side of hydro is hydro pumped storage (HPS) where you have 2 reservoirs separated by elevation (could be a closed system). Pumping uphill to upper reservoir when power is cheap/plentiful, generating power into the lower reservoir when power is costly/scarce. This type of bulk, multi-hour energy storage will be imperative as we see more solar and wind projects coming online.

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Nov 10, 2021

Hi Ron, nicely done.  Easy read and I like how you essentially boiled down zero carbon strategy to 1) increased efficiency, 2) electrification, and 3) decarbonization.  I agree.  One thing missing in this is energy storage.  That is another dimension of the decarbonization piece that is essential to grid reliability while utilizing large proportions of renewables.  Anyway, I really appreciate the contribution and enjoyed the read.  Thanks!

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 11, 2021

Stuart, I could not agree with you more on energy storage, which in my opinion is the "Holy Grail" of the energy sector for the next several decades. You may want to see my EnergyCentral.com articles with links below.

https://energycentral.com/c/gr/case-more-california-energy-storage

https://energycentral.com/c/em/energy-storage-enables-supply-demand-optimization

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Nov 11, 2021

Stuart, let's connect on LinkedIn.

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