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Paths to Net Zero - ORIGINAL CONTENT

Edward A. Reid Jr.
Posted On:
May 9, 2023 at 7:00 AM
Energy Policy, Climate Change

Numerous potential paths to net zero annual CO2 emissions have been identified and discussed, including:

  • Renewables plus storage
  • Massively overbuilt renewables and transmission
  • Renewables plus Dispatchable Emission-Free Resources (DEFR)

Each of these paths faces massive technological hurdles.

The renewables plus storage path requires short, medium and long duration storage. Short duration storage (~4 hours) is available with lithium batteries, but at very high cost. Medium duration storage (~8-16 hours) is under development, but is not yet commercially available and its cost is unknown. Long duration storage (weeks) is currently available only with pumped hydro, but its availability is very limited and there has been strong resistance to expanding it.

The cost and availability issues with storage have led some to propose a path based on massive overbuilding of renewable generation combined with massive additional transmission capacity. This approach assumes that there would always be excess renewable electricity available somewhere which could be moved to areas with inadequate renewable generation output resulting from adverse weather conditions or equipment failure. Ultimately, this approach would require development of a massively interconnected national grid with the ability to move power multi-directionally over far longer distances than is common today.

The renewables plus DEFR path relies on the availability of generation technology which is as yet undefined, no less developed and commercialized. There is no indication of when this technology would become available, not is there any information regarding its cost.

The US Administration is currently focused on renewables and has only recently placed any focus on storage. The Administration’s approach combines incentives for renewable generation, storage and transmission infrastructure with mandates to terminate operation of fossil-fueled generation. The Administration has also taken steps to progressively deprive the market of access to oil and natural gas, causing their prices to increase. The Administration also provides incentives for electric vehicles, combined with a ban on new fossil-fueled vehicle sales after 2035. There are also incentives for purchase of electric appliances and equipment, which are made more attractive by the increasing prices of oil and natural gas resulting from the Administration’s actions.

The Administration approach involves substantial risks, created primarily by the hard deadlines for elimination of coal generation (2030) and natural gas generation (2035). There is no assurance that sufficient renewable generation, electricity storage and transmission infrastructure will be operational by these hard deadlines to replace this dispatchable capacity, as well as to provide the additional capacity required to meet normal market growth and the approximate tripling of current demand by 2050 resulting from electrification of current fossil fueled end uses.

The Administration, while it has not carefully planned this transition to all-renewable “all-electric everything”, has carefully positioned itself to blame any failure to achieve its goals, as well as electricity price increases and loss of grid reliability on others, since it has established timelines and provided generous incentives.

There has not yet been a comprehensive demonstration of an energy system such as the Administration demands, though there have been several notable failures of partially implemented systems in Germany, UK, California and Texas.

Don’t begin vast programs with half-vast ideas.