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If Decarbonization is the Moon Shot, How Do We Build the Rocket Ship?

If Decarbonization is the Moon Shot, How Do We Build the Rocket Ship?

In the early 1960s, life was pretty simple, continuing much the same as it had for decades. There were shiny new automobiles and new music, airplanes flew nonstop across the oceans, and new buildings became taller and more impressive. But few people had yet dreamed of space travel. Going to the moon was the stuff of popular science fiction, albeit a fascinating idea.

But all that changed when a newly-elected president vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Even in 1969, when Neil Armstrong first stepped off the ladder of the lunar lander, fewer than half of Americans thought going to the moon was a good idea. Today, we talk of going back to the moon, and of going to Mars – and that “moon shot” has become synonymous for doing anything that seems impossible at any given time.

In the same way, fossil fuel was once considered the staple of the energy industry. Now, carbon emissions are viewed as the enemy, one that must be eradicated sooner rather than later to protect the future of the planet and its inhabitants. If “Net Zero” carbon emissions are the moon shot of our age, exactly will it take to get us there?

Ask anyone in the industry, and there is likely a scattered consensus. Given the disparity across the industry, the varied needs and staggered starting points, it’s obvious that no single “rocket ship” will work for everyone. It might take a handful of different designs to find one that works, or it may require diligent effort and a lot of trial and error to piece together a customized solution. Only the finish line – total decarbonization by 2050 – has been defined.

There is little doubt that this goal will require global commitment supported by the best efforts of governments, private enterprises, utility companies, scientists and dreamers. While no one can predict exactly how or when it will be achieved, an overwhelming number of government and industry leaders agree that it’s a worthy challenge and deserves our best efforts.

Designing the Rocket Ship

When it comes to designing the rocket ship, numerous options are available. The recent and rapid decline of coal has accelerated the pace toward adoption of renewables. In 2019, coal production dropped 18 percent in the U.S. and natural gas, a cleaner alternative, stepped up to become the nation's prime source of energy generation. We’re also seeing the concurrent growth of large-scale wind and solar, battery storage and related technology, the expectation of a new generation of nuclear and the promise of hydrogen power, all of which can offer new solutions and opportunities.

Existing options are all under study by utilities, corporations and governments with an eye on the practical. Operational efficiency and development costs must be balanced with delivery needs, but the number of potential solutions has never been greater. Newer options and hybrid implementations are added regularly. But because the starting blocks are different for industry and government, and because utilities are not all cut from the same cloth, individualized approaches are necessary.

Among the primary questions to be answered by the nation’s utilities are:

  • Who owns the generation?
  • Will some generation need to be retired to make way for new investments?
  • Should new investment be only for renewable generation?
  • What about credits?
  • Who are the other players?
  • Will state and national regulation help or hinder an evolving business?

Charting the Path

The Paris Accord of 2015 adopted 2050 as the target date, with the stipulation that member nations would submit follow-up goals in five years. This past summer, many nations did just that, with target dates ranging from 2030 to 2045 to achieve Net Zero goals. Interestingly, though, the target of capping current emissions at a 1.5-degree annual increase has not been met since the Accord was signed. And, although the United States announced its attention to withdraw from the pact in 2017, the U.S. had the largest absolute decline in carbon dioxide emissions in the world in 2019, a reduction of 140 million tons, according to the International Energy Agency.

We may today have the knowledge and expertise to take us three-quarters of the way to the goal of zero emission, the 21st-Century moon shot, but additional processes and as-yet-unrecognized technologies will be needed to get our rocket ships the rest of the way.

Carbon-free energy is not an impossible dream, even though a decentralizing marketplace and rapidly-changing technologies have introduced new issues to address. Some corporations and even individuals have joined the effort to tackle the climate crisis and reduce carbon emissions. Tech giant Microsoft accounced in January 2020 its commitment to become "carbon negative" throughout its operations and supply chain by 2030. The company also established a $1 billion fund to help develop atmospheric carbon removal solutions. Other efforts are underway to forge new solutions.

Failure was not considered an option for that long-ago moon shot, and teams of dedicated scientists, engineers, scholars, researchers and government sponsors toiled to ensure its success. Failure is no more an option for the energy industry today than it was for NASA.

Distributed power generation with bidirectional power flows has spawned new challenges for grid operation and protection. Control and optimization strategies often must include non-owned assets, and a higher degree of cooperation is necessary in order to continue to deliver reliable, safe power to an expanding customer base.

Higher penetration of distributed energy resources coupled with aging infrastructure, higher load demands and new concerns about resilience and reliability also add more layers of complexity. Necessary modernization of distribution networks, security, third-party participation and the highly vulnerable connected IT and communication networks are additional complicating factors.

Blasting Off

To continue the moon shot metaphor, liftoff and the right course may be the keys to success, but the mission continues on after the landing. Mission control will require detailed plans for staying in the new environment. Continuing grid digitization along with the number of new market participants has generated data on a scale never before experienced. Obtaining, analyzing and sharing the data collected from remote devices and sensors is a massive task. Effective data management will be critical.

Decision-making power must be shifted from a centralized location to the "edge" in order than it can remain timely and effective. Centralized oversight should be retained, but the ability to act and react quickly at the site of operations must become the norm, a non-negotiable requirement for efficiency and for the overall security of the infrastructure and assets. This will require a shift not only of philosophy but a new manner of communicating.

Future distribution and transmission grids must be streamlined, coordinated and perhaps redesigned to ensure minimal instability. The forecasting and alignment of load needs and generation requirements is highly complex. Utilities must thoroughly understand the impact of owned and nonowned assets on the total supply chain.

Finally, it is imperative to continue to advocate for modernization of regulatory authority. If utilities are unable to help shape new rules to support evolving business models, current efforts to transition to the envisioned market may be an exercise in frustration and futility. Utilities can, through collective advocacy and enlightened responses, become market leaders rather than simply reacting to market conditions.

Thriving in the New "Atmosphere"

It is obvious that utilities have goals that are significant not only for the industry but that are likely to be life-changing for the consumer as well. Practices adopted today impact the future, and the future requires that utilities recognize and cater to new customer requirements. When those customers can have their own sources of generation, utility loads might well be lower. Predictive analytics such as AI, automation and machine learning should help point the direction.

Plotting the moonshot, as vital as it is, represents just the initial phase of this venture. Ensuring survival in an unfamiliar landscape may well represent the larger challenge. It is wise to plan for that new energy ecosystem now, to consider new business models and investigate cost-cutting options, to re-envision ways to better protect and expand assets, and to put in place the monitoring and maintenance systems and processes that will be needed as 2050 approaches.

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