Energy Sustainability Requires Innovation
By Charles McConnell, University of Houston
There is an energized debate raging globally around the future of our planet – our energy ecosystem – and our societal way of life. Strong and polarizing views are being voiced. Some of that discussion is based upon forecasts, proposed business and market scenarios, science and technology expectations and fact. Other views are more emotional or not grounded in what is realistically possible. That said, there is a simple set of truths that must not be ignored going forward. These truths are the governing principles that make up the framework of true “energy sustainability”.
True energy sustainability is captured in the triangle below, and it is not static by any means. Change has occurred and will continue at a more rapid pace than ever. The forces of the marketplace are at work constantly and the elements of the triangle must stay in balance and harmony. Without the proper consideration and balance of the key elements of energy sustainability, the debate devolves into partisan positions and picking winners and losers. If this continues, we will all lose in the end.
There are realities today that are clearly challenging our society. Energy demands globally are projected to increase by well over 50 percent by 2050. However, the growth in demand will be accompanied by the societal desire to significantly decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, most critically carbon dioxide. And of course, we all want energy to remain affordable. This is the energy challenge we face – affordable, accessible and reliable, and environmentally responsible. Meeting this challenge globally will require transformative technologies and systems.
Most people are what I refer to as the “energy takers”, and don’t recognize this challenge to the “energy makers”. The U.S. has a population largely spoiled by the fact that we have always managed to overcome both energy AND environmental challenges – but not without purposeful effort. Many argue that government and policy must lead the way. Others say to trust the marketplace to drive industry and consumer behavior. Still others put their trust in technology and innovation, but it is not magic and requires investment. What is clear is that all of these forces will be in play at the same time, and without the balance of the key elements of energy sustainability, we may be working hard but not smart. People’s beliefs cannot be ignored or discounted. Education and the transformation of our societal production and consumption of energy will win the day.
Let’s start with the most fundamental need, which is access to energy. This can be defined by fuels, technology, delivery and the provision of energy. The global population continues to grow as does energy intensity – the amount of energy per person that is consumed. Sure, we are making huge strides in efficiencies and conservation. At the same time, our world becomes more electricity-intensive every day with the conveniences of cellphones, computers, the cloud – it goes on and on. And this says nothing of the vast numbers of the world’s seven billion people who live today in energy poverty, nor of the additional two to three billion more people who will inhabit the Earth in the next 50 years. We cannot put a cap on the improvement of life that comes with electricity.
Eliminating energy poverty may be the most important goal globally. There is no more critical factor to the quality of life. Can we achieve this by subtraction? Eliminating technologies and fuels and choosing to turn away from the incredible infrastructure that enables modern life? No.
People need not only access, but reliable access. Availability 24/7 must be the objective and indeed the mandate. Can you imagine having electricity for one or two hours a day – and never knowing when that one or two hours will occur?
There is no single way to achieve this reliability mandate. Our systems today are strongly grounded in baseload power supplies from coal and gas technologies that represent nearly 80 percent of the world’s electricity supply. This did not happen overnight and it will not be replaced overnight. Integrating renewables into supply systems and choosing the most effective way forward should be governed by affordability and competitiveness and we must be cautious of the impact of subsidies. There can be no denying that fossil fuels will remain a foundation of energy supply globally where use of these fuels will continue for the foreseeable future to be a compelling choice due to accessibility, availability and cost-effectiveness. Yet the goal of lower carbon dioxide emissions is not to be ignored.
The single most important transformative technology to address global climate objectives is broad, commercial deployment of carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). We finally understand that CO2 can be something more than an emission to dispose of – it is a product that can be utilized for commercial benefit as well. The marketplace has very recently come to embrace CCUS technology as a proven, commercially available means to produce nearly 100 percent carbonfree, 24/7 baseload power. CCUS has had global investment and R&D development for nearly 20 years and a significant milestone has been achieved in transformative technology that the fossil fuel industry can and must embrace for energy sustainability. This applies not just to coal but to natural gas as well. Carbon-free power can be produced competitively in the electricity marketplace, providing a zero carbon alternative and a continuing baseload option. It is reliable, resilient, available 24/7 and is a critical component of resource planning that is of global importance.
The two slides on this page were utilized recently at the annual meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), a gathering of regulators from across the U.S.
Slide A points out the opportunity that CCUS presents in resource planning and the Integrated Resource Planning process.
Slide B brings home the point that decarbonization is a global issue, and that the best U.S. contribution to the solution is the deployment of technology that can be adopted and accretive to energy security for countries all over the world.
U.S. industry has the opportunity not only to participate and lead in the global challenge, but to do so with accretive technology advancement. CCUS is not the answer everywhere. And this is not to say that renewables do not have a significant contribution to make in emissions reduction. But what it does say is that if decision-makers are not considering CCUS for what it is and can deliver, they could be choosing higher cost, less reliable options under a false premise of being “progressive”. Renewable options are NOT more cost-effective in all cases, as has been clearly identified in exhaustive studies that consider the externalities and embedded costs of renewables today. This includes the recent report by the Institute for Energy Research and America’s Power assessing the levelized cost of electricity from existing generating resources compared to new resources that might replace them, such as wind and solar.
Emissions management is not about “keeping it in the ground”. Using less coal and fossil fuels is not the solution for lowering global CO2 emissions and effectively meeting growing energy needs. Simply stated – hate the emissions, not the fuel! Technologies and investment in transformation are a far more effective approach to solutions. CCUS is not only an option, it is a requirement. So are renewables, batteries and storage, expanded rights-of-way for pipelines, rail and electric transmission, ports and terminals for imports and exports, and energy infrastructure that produces more energy with a lower carbon footprint. With this blueprint, the U.S. can become the model for the world to embrace for the transformation.
There is a societal cost for emissions reduction and the cost to deliver energy will be impacted but we cannot simply price whole populations out of the market and doom them to continue to live in energy poverty by imposing high-cost options. The U.S. can impact the world through the technological leadership we have always been counted upon to deliver globally. Other countries don’t want our ideology – they want to be able to thrive economically, and to lift their citizens out of energy poverty in a cost-effective and environmentally progressive manner. They want our technology!
Renewables are part of the future and will be deployed at a remarkable pace in the coming years. Coal and gas are equally important – especially on the global stage in developing countries. Energy sustainability is not an academic debate but one that requires real solutions and analysis. There is no single answer either in terms of fuel, technology or imposed policy. We must demand a full and fact-based analysis and that must include all options and impacts. Solutions globally must recognize the unique and challenging circumstances in any given area. Technology and the global migration of the know-how and capabilities of our industries and marketplace are the only means to win the day.
Charles McConnell formerly served as Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy and is currently the Executive Director, Carbon Management and Energy Sustainability at the University of Houston.