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COP27 and the variability challenge

Responsive and Adaptable: Meeting COP27’s Ambitions Means Low-Carbon and Resilient Energy Technologies

Responsive and Adaptable: Meeting COP27’s Ambitions Means Low-Carbon and Resilient Energy Technologies

By Youssef Merjaneh, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Black & Veatch EMEA

Discourse around decarbonization and climate mitigation has changed significantly since the 2021 United Nations global climate summit called COP26. With the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine manifesting through tightening gas supplies, the issues of energy security and system resilience have come into clearer view for governments and policymakers, the energy industry, and, importantly, millions of European consumers facing soaring heating bills this winter.

The energy market turmoil of recent months illustrates that even our most advanced economies are far from achieving a transition to net-zero or low-carbon energy systems. While unprecedented amounts of renewable energy is dispatched onto grids today in many parts of the world, COP27 next month (November 2022) will urge an acceleration of that process.

In his welcome message to COP27, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, president of host nation Egypt, anticipates a “stronger will and higher ambition” for mitigation measures resulting in increased renewable energy use and the application of new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the conference’s Presidency Programme calls for urgently scaling up technology transfer for low-carbon energy infrastructure.

But renewables alone will not suffice. Nature’s patterns are not aligned with communities’ electricity needs; solar supply peaks at noon and onshore wind turbines peak in the middle of the night, while consumers tend to use electricity in the morning and evening. Offshore wind, which is more consistent, potentially is part of the answer to the variability challenge but currently accounts for only 7 percent of the world’s total installed wind capacity.

Fulfilling COP27’s ambitions requires energy technologies that are low-carbon but also highly adaptable and resilient. Energy security needs investments in flexible energy storage with long-term, even seasonal capacity.

Energy security risks

The cyclical nature of wind and solar are not the only drivers for more adaptable low-carbon energy infrastructure. Research from as far apart as India, Greece and the United States has found that the performance of solar – the most common form of renewables – is significantly degraded by wildfires.

A recent Californian study found solar generation during September 2020, when the state was affected by smoke and particulates from wildfires, was reduced by 13.4 percent from the previous year – despite an increase in total solar capacity. So, with climate change increasing the propensity for wildfires – a tenfold increase in two decades, according to one Indian study – storage and more advanced grid planning, not just capacity additions, are necessary.

Extreme weather events are only getting harsher. Although the survey-driven Black & Veatch 2022 Electric Report found that approximately half of respondents said their utility does climate-related disaster scenario planning to prepare for potential disruptive events, almost one in four acknowledged they do not. Electric grids are vastly complex systems with much legacy technology not designed for some of the extreme weather conditions we already are experiencing.

This summer, France’s nuclear power output was reduced at power stations on the Rhône and Garonne rivers as heatwaves pushed up water temperatures, restricting the ability to use river water for cooling. Then in September, Hurricane Ian left communities from the Caribbean to the Carolinas without power, including 1.6 million people in Florida alone.

Such events will become more endemic, as COP27’s introductory statement notes, “Globally, the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.”

Factors other than climate change also are driving the need for more adaptable low-carbon energy infrastructure. Europe’s reliance on gas imports from Russia is proving problematic as supplies are being reduced in response to sanctions imposed following the invasion of Ukraine. Suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines is exacerbating the risk to energy security.

The ability to store energy generated from sources such as solar and wind is at the heart of creating more adaptable low-carbon energy infrastructure.

Achieving seasonal storage

Lithium-ion batteries are currently the most popular energy storage option, controlling more than 90 percent of the global grid battery storage market. They support the day-shifting of energy, dispatching four to eight hours of grid deployable power as renewable generation and demand varies throughout the day.

But lithium-ion chemistry cannot extend past eight hours of storage discharging at rated power. To unlock the full potential of renewable energy to cut carbon emissions, we need cost-effective, utility-scale and long-duration energy storage. Although the U.S. Department of Energy defines long-duration storage as anything more than 10 hours, the holy grail of energy storage would allow us to deploy electricity generated in the months with the greatest sunshine or wind during the cloudier or less windy seasons.

Development of long-duration iron and zinc batteries is encouraging – 100 hours is a huge improvement over lithium-ion’s eight hours – but this still is not enough to enable the seasonal shifting critical to fully adaptable low-carbon power generation.

Going beyond batteries

Bringing batteries and green hydrogen together can solve the energy storage issue in a fast, potentially economical manner. Green hydrogen offers a form of chemical energy storage that can both complement and serve as a reliable alternative to batteries.

To be economical, batteries need to be charged and discharged daily, discharging for a few hours. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, can provide long-duration storage that can be used for backup power much as natural gas or diesel are currently.

Using renewable energy green hydrogen also can be turned into green ammonia. As a liquid, ammonia is easier to transport and store than hydrogen gas, especially when using existing liquefied natural gas infrastructure.

Ammonia can serve as an energy storage medium, it can be burned as a carbon- and emissions-free energy source or it can be cracked to convert it back into hydrogen. The hydrogen then can be used to generate electricity in engines, combined-cycle gas power plants and in fuel cells. Read our report ‘Hydrogen 2022: The Road to Energy Storage’ for a detailed assessment of this complex subject.

To advance, hydrogen energy storage projects need to be demonstrated and then scaled, ultimately with the support of power utilities and power generation providers. The Advanced Clean Energy Storage green hydrogen hub already is being built in Utah, with engineering, construction and procurement (EPC) expertise from Black & Veatch.

Interconnecting green hydrogen production, storage and distribution in the western United States, that project will help decarbonize multiple industries, including power, transportation and manufacturing. If the Utah green hydrogen hub proves a success, it is very likely that projects of this nature will offer a blueprint for the types of technology transfer called for urgently during COP27.

Youssef Merjaneh is a senior vice president and managing director for Black & Veatch’s EMEA business.

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