More research and development into low-carbon fuels is needed to support nationwide decarbonization by 2050, and in support of that goal, the Electric Power Research Institute and Gas Technology Institute developed a plan for the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative, outlining five years of priority projects.
The Research Vision for the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative, released April 19, examines technologies that can be developed and deployed beyond 2030 to reach the goal, focusing on so-called alternative energy carriers, or AECs, which include fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels, and biofuels such as renewable natural gas.
The plan is "a living document that will incorporate lessons learned through project execution, global participation, and collaboration," according to the initiative's news release. The plan's creation was supported by roughly $111 million in funding from 39 sponsors—organizations such as Arizona Public Service; General Electric; Los Angeles Department of Water & Power; Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, America; Portland General Electric; the Salt River Project; Southern California Gas Co.; Southern California Edison; Southern Company; Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association; and Xcel Energy.
"Our Research Vision is a culmination of more than a year of work and engagement with hundreds of advisors across the energy industry," Neva Espinoza, EPRI vice president of energy supply and low-carbon resources, said in a news release. "It reflects global participation and collaboration and identifies the areas where this initiative can be most impactful. The LCRI's value chain approach acknowledges the importance of understanding the integration of new technologies, interdependencies of a complex energy ecosystem, and various pathways that support the transition to a decarbonized future."
However, the report states that "fossil fuels will continue to play a critical role in the global energy system in a decarbonized future."
The report identifies eight different areas deemed the most promising for making the transition: renewable fuels, hydrocarbon-based processes, electrolytic processes, delivery and storage, power generation, end use of low-carbon resources, safety and environmental aspects, and integrated energy system analysis. LCRI expects both the electric and gas industry to participate in the commercialization and deployment of various low-carbon AECs and fuels.
"This five-year, global collaborative will identify and accelerate fundamental development of promising technologies; demonstrate and assess the performance of key technologies and processes, identifying pathways to possible improvements; and inform key stakeholders and the public about technology options and potential pathways to a low-carbon future," LCRI said.
The report acknowledges the challenges inherent in meeting the 2050 target, particularly given that there are areas of the economy deemed "hard to decarbonize" and that there is a need for various approaches based on the global diversity of economic, environmental and sociological conditions for any region, country or company seeking to reach a net-zero emissions target, which includes differences in clean energy resource availability and energy needs.
"Because of these challenges there is no single best strategy for reaching NZE. However, certain transformations likely apply to many pathways and regions," the report says. "Although the pathways to achieve NZE may be uncertain and various, it is clear that the achievement of NZE will transform the energy sector. Similar to trends seen for electricity generation, renewable energy's share of final energy is expected to grow substantially in a NZE future while the use of fossil fuels declines."
The context used for identifying challenges and needs is provided for each area in the report. In the Cleaner Energy Production and Delivery section, for example, the researchers noted that investments in electric infrastructure are needed to address increased renewable energy generation as well as "the inherent variability of power generation and loss of firm capacity and reliability services" that fossil fuel-based generation supports, which they contend necessitates increased grid storage availability to ensure flexibility.
In 2019, the entire domestic electric grid had roughly 22 GW of pumped-hydro storage, 1 GW of battery storage, and 0.5 GW of miscellaneous energy storage technologies, with between 20 GW and more than 100 GW of two- to four-hour batteries expected to be added in the coming years for short-term flexibility. Beyond nuclear power, the initiative contends that another low-carbon generation source will be needed—some combination of bioenergy, hydrogen and/or natural gas with carbon capture and storage—to span any gaps when load is high or renewable generation is low.
Within the energy sector, researchers said even as the industry continues reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, "there will continue to be a need for on-demand, flexible options for power generation." The report notes that more research on generation that uses AECs is needed to understand how they differ from hydrocarbon-based fuels paired with carbon capture and storage. One of the issues the industry needs to examine is whether existing power generation assets that use natural gas can successfully shift to blended-fuel use, which requires testing to see how the equipment, environmental control technologies and other systems might work.
Cost and performance studies are needed in the areas of production, conversion and infrastructure "to inform decision making and guide research prioritization in achieving economy-wide decarbonization." In production, for example, analysis of electrolysis and gasification with carbon capture are priorities, while conversion priorities include biomass and biofuels and ammonia cracking. Investigating cost and performance will enable an individual technology to be improved as well as allow various technologies to be compared. LCRI said it intends to continuously update the list of candidate technologies.