As part of the drive to decarbonize the economy throughout Intermountain West and beyond, public conversation often centers on wind and solar power, electric cars, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage. carbon.
The grid – the interconnected power plants, transmission lines and control centers that keep the lights on across the country – is the much-needed enabler of this future carbon-neutral electrified world. Yet the grid is often left out of the discussion.
It shouldn’t be.
Achieving this carbon-neutral future requires big changes to the grid, both in its design and in its overall capacity, storage and reserves, as we use more electricity for everything from cars to home heating. Realizing this future also depends on science to inform the public and decision makers about the options, so that they support and make the best choices at all levels, from community to state to region.
I lead the push for electricity within the Intermountain West Energy Sustainability and Transitions, or I-WEST, initiative. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, I-WEST brings together people from all walks of life to shape the transition to a carbon-neutral energy economy. The I-WEST region includes Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Communities in every state are affected by market transitions away from fossil fuels.
I-WEST is a local initiative dedicated to finding the most regionally appropriate strategies and technologies to reduce emissions from this and other sectors while providing reliable energy, protecting jobs and helping communities to prosper.
Later this year, I-WEST will produce a preliminary energy transition roadmap with pathways to carbon neutrality focusing on I-WEST’s four main technology areas: hydrogen, CO2, bioenergy and low-carbon electricity. Based on community feedback, the roadmap will describe the needs and concerns of people in the region, the technologies that can be deployed in the most appropriate way regionally, the resources available for carbon neutral energy , potential industrial partners and economic and political landscapes. Carbon-neutral energy systems add no new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and are essential for limiting climate change.
Wide range of technologies required
The electricity sector in the I-WEST region emits a total of 166 million tons of CO2 per year, each year, including 129 million tons from coal-fired power plants and 37 million tons from natural gas-fired power plants. We will need to rely on a wide range of energy technologies to transition to carbon-neutral electricity. This includes familiar systems like wind and solar, and newer ones including the blending of hydrogen and natural gas, large-scale batteries to store variable renewable energy for on-demand use, small modular nuclear reactors and others.
A number of enabling technologies will be required to make these other pathways viable. Carbon capture can immediately reduce emissions from point sources and make hydrogen production carbon neutral, large-scale batteries can make renewables reliable, and water treatment technologies can reduce the use of drinking water for energy production.
A key piece of the puzzle is capturing carbon from smokestack emissions and sequestering it in geological formations or using it in products such as new types of concrete. Carbon capture can reduce the carbon footprint of traditional fossil fuel power plants and ultimately make them carbon neutral.
Through workshops with participants from the power generation and transmission sectors, industrial consumers, rural cooperatives, regional universities and Ministry of Energy laboratories, I-WEST identified the challenges of transition to carbon neutrality and the approaches best suited to the region. . The abundance of solar power in the region makes renewable energy a natural choice. The blend of natural gas and hydrogen makes sense as a “bridge technology” towards the energy transition in the region due to its considerable resources, manpower and infrastructure. Nuclear power holds promise due to the region’s ability to mine and reprocess uranium.
The main challenge in making the transition is balancing the load on the network, which means matching supply to fluctuating (and likely increasing) demand. One of the challenges of charging is storing energy from renewables so that the grid can handle extreme events in the absence of the constant energy provided by fossil fuels. The answers could come from grid-scale batteries and other options, such as pumped hydro. The latter uses the wind or the sun to lift the water to a higher altitude in a sort of large-scale battery of stored water, from which the water can then be released. Gravity does the work as water flows through a hydroelectric generator to generate electricity. Limitations in water availability, however, could be a factor.
A regional renewable energy opportunity that can provide stable power without the need for grid-scale batteries is geothermal, which takes advantage of the high temperatures beneath much of the I-WEST region. Although current technology and economics have limited the deployment of geothermal energy in the region, new technologies are being explored and developed that could significantly increase the use of geothermal energy to bring the region to carbon neutrality.
Other challenges include limited transmission capacity to get electricity from new sources to end users. Another is the lack of a region-wide pricing structure, which leads to perhaps the most important factor in moving to carbon-neutral energy: cost. Economics will guide every decision. Much of the cost of deploying these new technologies will be passed on to the consumer through tariffs, and regulators must approve these tariffs. That doesn’t mean everyone’s electricity bill will skyrocket – electric utilities regularly make new investments that are recouped by rates – but solving these problems will require new approaches at all levels. levels.
Adapting the regional network to these challenges will require careful system-wide planning. At Los Alamos, which has decades of experience finding network vulnerabilities and optimizing its structure and operation to maintain network resiliency, we are well positioned to lead this part of the I- WEST in partnership with regional stakeholders. It will not be a single technology that will take us to carbon neutrality. It will be a range of solutions.
Mary Ewers is an energy and economics researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has studied the grid for more than a decade. The Office of the Executive is a guest column providing advice, commentary, or information on resources available to the business community in New Mexico.