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Q&A: Future of net-zero power in the US with Electric Power Research Institute

02 December 2021 Kevin Adler

The US power industry is working hard to reduce emissions towards net zero, even as the country transitions many traditional uses of fossil fuels to renewables. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is at the forefront supporting research, development, and deployment of generation technology to turn those ambitions into reality, collaborating with more than 450 companies in 45 countries. In this Q&A, two EPRI top executives discuss past accomplishments by the power industry and activities that promise new benefits for consumers and industry.

Net-Zero Business Daily: To set the context, can you update us on the accomplishments of the US energy industry in reducing CO2 and GHG emissions?

Neil Wilmshurst, senior vice president, energy system resources: We like to take a slightly broader view to look at the last 15 years. Carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are 20% below 2005 levels. The majority of emissions reduction came from the electric power industry, which maintained consistent electricity prices, even as the economy grew 28%. EPRI identified two primary drivers for this cost-effective decarbonization—strides in energy efficiency and electrification, and the shift to cleaner electricity generation. The impact of more energy-efficient technologies today is amplified by a US generating mix that is 30% less carbon intensive than 15 years ago.

NZBD: What are the sources of those improvements?

Wilmshurst: Efficiency gains helped keep electricity demand flat as the economy doubled. At the same time, technology advancement and policy changes drove the shift from coal generation to lower-emission natural gas, solar, and wind. Coal generation declined more than 50% as renewables grew tenfold. During the same period, nuclear power maintained its contribution to the generation mix at about 20%. EPRI's R&D has reflected these changes, as we've done significant work in energy efficiency, electrification, and low-carbon power generation.

NZBD: The US has big ambitions going forward, including both net-zero carbon power by 2035 and 50-52% total economywide GHG reductions by 2030. What's the state of progress, from EPRI's perspective? Can the US meet the goals, or come close?

Wilmshurst: Net zero is possible. It will take aggressive action and commitment from all areas of the economy. As governments around the world commit to reduce emissions and dramatically transform their energy ecosystems, the US has an opportunity to take an even greater leadership role. The R&D and scientific communities will be critical—universities, national labs and research organizations—bringing objectivity and credibility to evaluate and deploy the technologies needed to support international climate goals.

The path to 2050 will involve building on what works today and developing new technologies to achieve the final 10% to 20% of carbon reduction. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but a portfolio of solutions. An affordable and reliable clean energy transition depends on understanding regional differences and addressing a range of inherent technical and operational challenges along the way.

To overcome these challenges, EPRI, joined by Gas Technology Institute, is accelerating and demonstrating low- and zero-carbon energy technologies through the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI). This five-year, $125+ million initiative, launched in 2020, is targeting fundamental advances in low-carbon electric generation technologies and low-carbon energy carriers, providing scientific credibility and objectivity to the global decarbonization effort. This R&D will be instrumental to achieve economy-wide decarbonization by mid-century.

NZBD:What's needed to get there?

Rob Chapman, senior vice president, energy delivery and customer solutions: Emissions reductions in the electric power sector and electrifying transportation with wider adoption of light duty electric vehicles play key roles in net-zero goals. Electrification of end-uses is a central part of the near-term strategy and will be a significant aspect of achieving a net-zero energy future.

What's more, increasing the capacity of the transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure system will enable decarbonization by allowing the integration of utility-scale and low-carbon resources such as solar, wind, and batteries. It will also support the increased use of electricity due to electrification. Increasing the capacity of existing T&D systems will be vital, as well as building new advanced, high-capacity and low-cost new assets that are more reliable and resilient.

NZBD: Please provide details on one or two breakthroughs and EPRI's contribution.

Chapman: EPRI, working with utilities, technology solution providers, and other research organizations, has advanced the ability to integrate distributed energy resources (DER) and the use of microgrids to address utility customer needs for clean generation, reliability and resilience. In collaboration with the US Department of Energy, EPRI demonstrated the ability to control and optimize solar using flexible loads and energy storage, use utility management of DER to provide community resilience, and integrate commercial into a microgrid using existing solar assets to provide reliable, resilient power.

Since its launch, LCRI has been involved in numerous clean energy projects. For example, EPRI, in partnership with the New York Power Authority, General Electric and hydrogen supplier Airgas, has teamed up to test the viability of blending renewable hydrogen with natural gas for a portion of the fossil fuel combusted at the Brentwood Power Station in Long Island. The project is a first-in-the-nation study of how various renewable hydrogen blending levels may decrease carbon emissions at power plants without affecting reliability. If successful, the project could be used as a blueprint throughout New York—which aims to reduce emissions 85% below 1990 levels by 2050—and the country, helping to further decarbonize the energy sector.

NZBD:What are the barriers inhibiting the next promising breakthroughs?

Chapman: As we lay the groundwork now to make economy-wide carbon reductions in the coming decades, it's important to ensure the clean energy transition is equitable and sustainable, while keeping electricity accessible, affordable, and reliable for consumers in the US, and around the world.

NZBD: Progress doesn't just come from new technology. A lot comes from incremental improvements to existing technologies and better procedures/best practices. Can you discuss EPRI's contribution in this area?

Chapman: An important aspect of LCRI is working together to find the most reliable and cost-effective methods for achieving net zero. One example of this is looking at the natural gas system as a form of energy storage. Can existing natural gas infrastructure feasibly and safely transport hydrogen, perhaps with some modification? Can hydrogen be converted to a more energy dense-by-volume fuel, such as ammonia, to transport it and then be converted back to 100% hydrogen at the point of use? There are many more questions like this that we are focused on addressing.

NZBD: If we're looking ahead 2-5 years, what can we expect from the US power industry?

Chapman: The US power sector is always focused on continual improvement and adaptation. Energy is not static, and neither is the electricity sector. Among the sector's top priorities will continue to be increasing low-carbon energy resources on the electric grid, greater widespread adoption of electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them. Plus, we'll see a strong focus on preparing for extreme events—whether that's weather, cyber, or physical security-- to ensure those power sources remain reliable and resilient in the event of a power failure.

Posted 02 December 2021 by Kevin Adler, Chief Editor

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