Enabling Low Carbon Energy Generation | The Critical Role for Hydro, Nuclear, Hydrogen, and Other Low Carbon Fuels

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Danielle Vitoff's picture
Associate Director Guidehouse

Danielle Vitoff, LEED AP, TRUE Advisor, is a Associate Director at Guidehouse; she is also a LEED AP and TRUE Advisor with a background in architecture and a focus on sustainability. Danielle...

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  • Mar 23, 2021

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-03 - Power Generation, click here for more

CO-Author: Hector Artze

The energy industry is in the middle of a significant transformation, one that will fundamentally reimagine energy generation, energy delivery to homes and businesses, and consumer interactions with energy providers. A primary driver of this transformation is decarbonization—delivering more of our energy needs from low carbon resources, including distributed, intermittent renewables such as wind and solar. We must reduce the carbon intensity of our energy system, and quickly, to achieve scientifically derived, mid-century carbon reduction goals. However, how our system already feels the impacts of climate change is often left out of these discussions of system transformation.

Resilience is defined as a system’s ability to prevent, withstand, adapt to, and quickly recover from system damage or operational disruption. Resilience is particularly defined in relation to high impact, low likelihood events. We are not thinking about the daily fluctuations in energy load (what is usually part of the discussion of system reliability), but are considering high impact events including the 2020 California coincident heat waves and wildfires, the 2020 Hurricane Isaias, the 2019 Polar Vortex, and even the very recent Texas winter storm. Some of these events resulted in major disruptions to customers’ energy service. Although in some cases disruptions did not occur, the possibility of disruption and significant collapse was closer than comfortable. As significant extreme events grow in occurrence and severity, we must do a better job of considering these events when we make decisions about future energy generation.

Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage of costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Resilience is an illusive standard. A system will never be fully resilient, but it can be more resilient. Designing with resilience in mind means carefully balancing the costs of making a system more resilient with the avoided costs of potential failure. This calculation is most akin to evaluating the cost of insurance. You purchase insurance hoping that the inevitable would not occur but knowing that if it does, you will be able to financially recover from the disruption.

So, what does a future decarbonized and resilient generation portfolio look like?

  • Increase in distributed, renewable generation: Decarbonization of the energy system will require significant growth, such that the majority of our energy delivered from renewable resources. It will also see an increase in distributed generation serving critical loads and remote communities.
  • Maintenance of significant on-call resources: Most renewable resources are intermittent, which means that matching demand and generation becomes increasingly challenging, especially when an extreme event is experienced. Our work shows that these on-call resources are primarily supplied by hydrogen and nuclear in resilient, decarbonized future scenarios.
  • Short- and long-term storage needs: Additionally, because of the intermittency of renewable resources, energy storage becomes more important in the future state. Batteries will serve much of this need for short-term storage issues but maintaining system resilience will also require long-term, seasonal storage, to be supplied by nuclear, hydrogen, or other low carbon fuels.

Delivering resilience in a future decarbonized energy portfolio will require changes to our decision-making about the construction of our energy infrastructure. Most notably:

  • Decisions should include future conditions: Most of the design decisions for our energy system are based on historical conditions—what has occurred over the last 10-20 years. But our energy system must work in the future, so we must change our design parameters to reflect future operating conditions resulting from climate change. Consideration of the future conditions may not change the average day that dramatically but will likely significantly change the peak day event.
  • More focus must be put on peak day conditions: Projections of future energy system operation and deep decarbonization studies often focus on the workings of the energy system for an average day. The system’s resilience will never be built under average day operation, resilience is considered in relation to system stress. Placing greater focus on peak day operation in future system projections will allow for improved resilience planning.
  • Cost recovery mechanisms to support resilience: Delivering a resilient energy system will require updated cost mechanisms. Current cost recovery mechanisms focus on the volumetric delivery of energy systems, but the development of system assets for resilience will require these assets be designed around the ability to deliver for extreme conditions instead of average conditions.

With an increase in the occurrence and severity of extreme events resulting from climate change, system planning will be increasingly important. Planning needs to include the results of climate change impact analyses to develop resilient resource plans and mitigate the impact to transmission and distribution systems. If energy system resilience is managed correctly it will add to the list of trends reshaping the structure and design of our future energy system.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

Planning needs to include the results of climate change impact analyses to develop resilient resource plans and mitigate the impact to transmission and distribution systems.

This is a great point-- we saw a lot of focus on resilience (or lack thereof) of generation assets in the wake of the ERCOT freezes, but we also need to look at the resilience of transmission assets amid storms, wildfires, etc. 

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on May 31, 2021

In California, the nuclear option has passed, unless SMRs gain ground. Hydrogen is not the answer, either. For transportation, the thermodynamic losses make electrification the clear choice over hydrogen -- by a factor of 3 to 1 based on efficiency. For power generation, hydrogen has extreme challenges in pipeline replacement, exotic gas turbine technology, and safety -- especially if converted to anhydrous ammonia (the Mitsubishi process development). Hydrogen has no real place in energy storage -- the efficiency losses compared with electrification (batteries) and other energy storage (e.g., pumped hydro) make hydrogen a non-starter. Hydrogen is great for hydrocracking, hydrogenation, fertilizer (via ammonia), and a few other niche applications. For energy storage, look to use of EV smart charging and second use of EV batteries.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 13, 2021

"In California, the nuclear option has passed..."

Remains to be seen, Charles. The shutdown of Diablo Canyon is facing increasing opposition, with San Luis Obispo County facing a potential lawsuit if they fail to include effects on climate in their Environmental Impact Report (EIR). A requirement to begin decommissioning, S.L.O. County's EIR must acknowledge studies showing a projected increase of 15.5 MT CO2 between now and 2030.

Couldn't agree more on your assessment of hydrogen. It's refreshing to see so much truth in one place here on EC!

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