Leveraging Coronavirus Stimulus to Take a Giant Leap Toward Decarbonization

At-a-Glance

While electricity demand has faltered during the global pandemic, the share of wind and solar generation has continued to increase. Wind and solar produced 10 percent of global electricity between January and June in 2020. In the European Union, renewables accounted for 33 percent of all power generation. According to the International Energy Agency, the EU’s renewable energy production was higher than its fossil fuel generation between February and early July of this year. The increased role of renewables has highlighted the investments necessary to make the transition to a 100 percent renewable power system faster and more economically efficient. To learn more, read “Leveraging Coronavirus Stimulus to Take a Giant Leap Toward Decarbonization.” 

Key Takeaways

  • While there are nuances depending on local circumstances, one significant takeaway is that the power system as a whole can handle a more rapid shift to renewables than grid operators have long assumed. 
    • “What we found was the energy system can cope really well with much more renewable power and that it’s possible to raise the ambitions around adding more clean energy,” said Sushil Purohit, president of Wärtsilä Energy.
  • Charting a more rapid and financially efficient transition to a 100 percent renewables future was a primary objective of Wärtsilä’s recent report, Aligning Stimulus With Energy Transformation, based on its Atlas modeling. 
    • The report demonstrates how using energy-related stimulus investments to support clean energy could speed decarbonization in five key countries: the U.S., the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany and Australia.
  • According to the report, 54 percent of the $400 billion pledged has been targeted to benefit fossil-fuel-based energy, while 36 percent has been devoted to clean energy. 
    • In the U.S., more than 70 percent of the current $100 billion allocated for energy stimulus was pledged to fossil fuels, compared to less than 30 percent for clean energy.

Path to 100% Perspective

Beyond the issue of decarbonization, this is a missed opportunity to spark near-term job creation. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, every $10 million of government spending on renewables creates 75 jobs, while the same amount invested in fossil fuels creates 27 jobs. For the U.S., reallocating the $72 million of the COVID-19 energy stimulus currently earmarked for fossil fuels to clean energy would result in 544,000 new jobs, 175 percent more than would be produced in the traditional energy sector. In addition, these investments would result in 107 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity and a 6.5 percent increase in renewable electricity generation, from 17.5 percent to 24 percent.

Ditch Nuclear And Save $860 Million With Grid Flexibility, U.K. Told 

At-a-Glance

According to the report from Finnish energy tech firm Wärtsilä, the U.K. would stand to save $860 million per year if, instead of new nuclear power, the government backed grid flexibility measures, such as battery storage and thermal generation. That equates to a saving of about $33 dollars per British household per year. Crucially, the analysis revealed that even if energy generation was to remain the same as it is today, Britain could increase renewables’ share of that generation to 62% simply by adding more flexibility. To learn more, read Ditch Nuclear And Save $860 Million With Grid Flexibility, U.K. Told.” Reading this article could require a subscription.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the Wärtsilä report, Germany at one point paid almost $1.1 million per hour to export 10.5 gigawatts of electricity. Such inefficiencies, Ville Rimali, growth and development director at Wärtsilä Energy said, were indicative of inflexible electricity systems—while countries that had built flexibility into their power grids had no such issues.
  • On the other hand, investing in nuclear power could, according to Wärtsilä, entrench an inflexible grid while making renewables such as solar and wind less cost-effective.
  • Wärtsilä’s recommendations appear to align closely with those of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which has stated that, as economies move away from fossil fuels, “power system flexibility has become a global priority.” Subsequently, according to a report released by the agency last month, much faster deployment of grid flexibility will be required if countries are to achieve their decarbonization targets.

Path to 100% Perspective

In the “Optimising the UK’s Shift to a Renewable-Powered Economy, Wärtsilä recommends a three phase strategy to accelerate a cost-optimal shift to 100% renewable energy and economic decarbonisation. 

  1. Support faster renewable energy deployment to achieve 80% renewable generation by 2030. 
  2. Increase investment in flexibility to unlock renewable energy and deliver a cost-optimal transition for consumers. 
  3. Future-proof today’s decisions to enable future technologies – such as Power-to-X – to achieve 100% renewable energy before 2050

 

Photo by Nicolas Hippert on Unsplash

Green Hydrogen in Natural Gas Pipelines: Decarbonization Solution or Pipe Dream?

At-a-Glance:

Can carbon-free hydrogen augment, or even replace, the fossil natural gas running through pipelines to fuel furnaces, boilers, stoves and other building applications today? Or will the effort get bogged down in challenges related to pipeline safety and upgrade costs, loss of energy density, the long-term cost discrepancies compared to electrifying natural-gas-fired heat and appliances in buildings, or the pressure to direct green hydrogen to hard-to-decarbonize sectors? Natural-gas utilities around the world are seeking real-world answers to these kinds of questions. To learn more, read “Green Hydrogen in Natural Gas Pipelines: Decarbonization Solution or Pipe Dream?”

Key Takeaways:

  • In the U.S., the HyBlend project involving NREL and five other DOE labs intends to examine the long-term effects of hydrogen at different blends on different pipeline materials and create publicly available models for industry use. This kind of research will help determine how much it will cost to upgrade existing pipeline networks to make the shift.
  • “Hydrogen also burns very differently than methane”, said Jussi Heikkinen, the Americas Director of Growth and Development for Wärtsilä Energy and Path to 100% community expert, which is investing in engines that can run on 100 percent hydrogen. “It burns almost as an explosion. It’s a blast, and then it’s done. That’s good for efficient conversion of gas into heat, but it also brings safety and engineering challenges,” he said.
  • Making green hydrogen using carbon-free electricity also costs four to six times more than making hydrogen from fossil fuels. Those costs are expected to fall with advances in electrolysis efficiency, lower costs of renewable energy to power them, and economies of scale from the industrial hubs being built around the world.

Path to 100% Perspective:

When utilities go beyond 25 percent hydrogen in the fuel, in most places in the world, they are no longer able to use the same equipment. Electronics, for example, must be explosion-proof. There should be no sparks because hydrogen ignites with almost any air-to-fuel ratio.

Hydrogen is also about three times less energy-dense than methane. That means that as the ratio of hydrogen rises, the volume of energy being delivered through the same pipelines decreases.

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

Sempra utilities pitch demonstration program as first step to California hydrogen injection standard

At-a-Glance:

Sempra Energy subsidiaries Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) plan to launch California’s first hydrogen blending demonstration program as a first step toward creating a hydrogen injection standard for the state. The first proposed project would begin with a 1% hydrogen blend in an isolated section of primarily polyethylene plastic distribution system and eventually could increase to as much as 20% hydrogen. The location of the project will be selected in early 2021 and the utilities plan to implement more such blending demonstrations in their service territories. To learn more, read “Sempra utilities pitch demonstration program as first step to California hydrogen injection standard.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Adding hydrogen to California’s resource mix could allow the state to build a much more efficient power system, and reduce the need to overbuild solar and battery storage capacity, according to Jussi Heikkinen, Director of Growth and Development, Americas at Wärtsilä Energy Business.
  • Blending hydrogen with natural gas is part of SDG&E and SoCalGas’ strategies to decarbonize their natural gas systems, according to Sempra — the utilities envision using excess renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, which can then be injected into the natural gas grid.
  • SoCalGas and SDG&E briefed regulators on the safety precautions they intend to take with the program, including ensuring that the blend is compatible with behind-the-meter appliances, implementing leak surveys, and creating a specific customer protocol and emergency response for hydrogen.
  • The proposed blending projects are an important first step in the right direction, Heikkinen said — but to reach a high level of decarbonization, it is necessary to blend fairly high shares of hydrogen into natural gas because of its lower density. In a 25% hydrogen, 75% natural gas blend by volume, for example, less than 10% of the resulting energy comes from hydrogen, he explained.”When we start blending, then we should go for higher blends as fast as possible. When you start to go beyond 50%, then you start to make a difference,” Heikkinen added.

Path to 100% Perspective:

There are some safety risks. Hydrogen is extremely flammable and burns very fast. Special caution needs to be taken when engineering a product using more than 25% hydrogen.

Special safety regulations for its use need to be in place before it becomes widely available. In some locations, these regulations are still under development. A bigger issue is that there is no infrastructure globally to produce, store, and distribute hydrogen at scale. It all needs to be built. This infrastructure will be expensive and will also take some time. Additionally, there is the risk that hydrogen will not be the fuel of choice, so there is some hesitation to invest in the necessary infrastructure. This in turn limits the attractiveness of hydrogen, so it’s a difficult challenge to solve.

 

Photo: Sempra

How to Build a Green Hydrogen Economy for the US West

At-a-Glance:

Out in Utah, a coal-fired power plant supplying electricity to Los Angeles is being outfitted to eventually be able to run on hydrogen, created via electrolysis with wind and solar power and stored in massive underground caverns for use when that clean energy isn’t available for the grid. This billion-dollar-plus project could eventually expand to more renewable-powered electrolyzers, storage and generators to supply dispatchable power for the greater Western U.S. grid. It could also grow to include hydrogen pipelines to augment and replace the natural gas used for heating and industry or supply hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle fleets across the region. To learn more, read “How to Build a Green Hydrogen Economy for the US West.”

Key Takeaways:

  • The Western Green Hydrogen Initiative (WGHI) is a group representing 11 Western states, two Canadian provinces and key green hydrogen industry partners. WGHI launched in November to align state and federal efforts to create a regional green hydrogen strategy including a large-scale, long-duration renewable energy storage regional reserve.
  • At the heart of this effort are two projects in central Utah. The first is the Intermountain Power Project, a coal-fired power plant operated by the state-owned Intermountain Power Agency, which supplies municipal utilities in Utah and California, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. By 2025, Intermountain will be converted to turbines to supply 840 megawatts of power using natural gas blended with 30 percent hydrogen, a proportion that will rise to 100 percent hydrogen over the coming decades.
  • The second project is the Advanced Clean Energy Storage (ACES) project, which will invest roughly $1 billion to develop a nearby underground salt dome to store compressed hydrogen. ACES will provide up to 150,000 megawatt-hours of energy storage capacity, a scale that dwarfs the lithium-ion battery capacity being installed in California and across the Intermountain West.

Path to 100% Perspective:

Whether green hydrogen can cost-effectively replace natural gas for its myriad current uses will depend largely on the carbon-reduction drivers involved. But it will also require a redefinition of what it’s doing for the broader electrical system, said Jussi Heikkinen, Director of Growth and Development for the Americas division of Wärtsilä Energy Business. Wärtsilä’s engines power about one-third of the world’s cargo ships and a good deal of electricity generation, he said. It’s been making strides in converting its engines to run on 100 percent hydrogen and is developing hydrogen generation projects in the U.S. and Europe. In a study focused on California, Wärtsilä showed that zero-carbon hydrogen, or methane generated with carbon-capture technologies, to fuel power plants is a much less expensive alternative to building the battery capacity needed to cover the final 5 percent to 10 percent of grid power needed to reach its 100 percent carbon-free energy goals. “When there are huge load peaks, cloud cover or unusual weather, these plants kick in, and allow you to build a much smaller battery storage fleet,” he said.

 

Photo by Peter De Lucia on Unsplash