Q&A Series: Joseph Ferrari Discusses Pathways Toward 100% Carbon Reduction for Electric Utility Power Systems

Joseph Ferrari is the General Manager of Utility Market Development at Wärtsilä North America, Inc. At Wärtsilä, Joseph is responsible for project origination, outreach and influencing activities focused on large investor owned utilities in the United States, as well as regulatory bodies. He is a naturalist, an ecologist, a scientist and engineer with more than a decade of experience in power system planning coupled with a strong background in ecological science. He received his MS in Natural Resource Science from the University of Maryland, his MS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Cincinnati, and a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Pennsylvania State University.


Question: As the General Manager of Utility Market Development at Wärtsilä North America, what is your role in helping further the path toward a 100 percent renewable energy future?

Joseph Ferrari: My role within Wartsila is to understand where markets are going and how to better position Wartsila to be a positive contributor to the outcomes. So many states, cities, towns and utilities are committing to 100% it seems natural to explore this space to see how we can help.

Q: Let’s focus on your recent whitepaper, “Pathways Toward 100% Carbon Reduction for Electric Utility Power Systems.” What was the intent behind your analysis?

Ferrari: The push towards “100%” is ubiquitous in the news, in academia, in politics. However, there is no clear or commonly accepted understanding of what this means. We wanted to explore what different definitions imply for utility systems as they transition from fossil-dominated to clean energy dominated.

Q: In the whitepaper, you analyze carbon-free versus carbon-neutral pathways for decarbonization. What is the difference between the two terms?

Ferrari: There are actually three terms of relevance here. 100% renewable means every MWh customers use is directly served by renewable energy- from wind to solar to hydro to geothermal. 100% carbon-free means every MWh is served by wind/solar/hydro/geothermal, OR by sources that emit no carbon, such as nuclear and/or energy storage such as batteries. Carbon-neutral means the same thing as carbon-free with one major exception- that combustion of renewable fuels is allowed. Renewable fuels emit carbon when burned, but the carbon was originally taken from the atmosphere and is simply recycled, with no net increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Q: Please explain your modeling approach in this work.

Ferrari: Mirroring the approach utilities use to model their portfolios for integrated resource planning purposes, our work used long-term capacity expansion models. The advantage of our work is we used hourly chronological approaches which take full account of wind and solar fluctuations and account for the necessary firm capacity needed to maintain reliability, which is a rather new approach that is gaining momentum in the utility-world. The model was run across a 20-year planning horizon and solves for the least-cost solution while satisfying all constraints (such as clean energy requirements across the modeling horizon).

Q: One of your major findings indicates that electric utilities can achieve 80 percent carbon reduction based purely on economics, with no subsidies, mandates or renewable requirements. How is this possible?

Ferrari: Solar, wind and traditional storage (batteries) have enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, massive learning curves over time. That is, as more of these clean resources are installed there are greater economies of scale and greater competition, leading to falling prices. If you allow a long-term capacity expansion model to “see” these prices, and how they fall in time, the model will naturally choose the lowest cost option to serve energy through time. Our modeling, and that of a number of utilities (independent of our work) shows that mass deployment of clean energy technologies is “doable” based purely on economics. The days of subsidies and mandates for wind and solar may be in our past, they were initially needed to get the critical investment momentum.

Q: Why should utilities leverage power-to-gas (PtG) technologies to meet net-zero carbon emission goals? Why not aim for 100 percent carbon-free?

Ferrari: Carbon free may be the ideal solution for utilities that have ready access to hydro or other carbon free resources that can provide firm capacity when wind and solar falter. But most utilities do not fall in this camp and must explore a wider array of technical solutions to meet decarbonization goals. Power-to-gas provides an additional degree-of-freedom in the planning process that unlocks new and exciting pathways towards decarbonization. Our work shows PtG pathways provide the lowest cost for ratepayers while attending to climate change concerns.

Q: Finally, how can the U.S. lead in the path to 100 percent renewables?

Ferrari: I think we are already proving ourselves to be leaders in this regard, but we can do better. I think American investment in power-to-gas will provide a cornerstone of our path towards what the IPCC is calling for: carbon-neutrality. Power-to-fuels in general will be a large part of decarbonization for flights, sea-freight and domestic shipping and automotive, supplementing the strides we are making with electric vehicles. The investment in power-to-fuels is already starting and will accelerate. This will provide positive feedback loops and interplay among the liquid fuels industry, the natural gas fuel industry, and the electric utility industry that will be beneficial for all three in meeting decarbonization targets. What may still be needed is the legislative and regulatory vision to make this possible, or at the least, not stifle it. For example, many states openly allow biofuels to count as “renewable” for power generation. Allowing the same for renewably generated power-to-gas would provide a great deal of incentive, as investors would know this is officially recognized as part of the 100% renewable future.