Providing Clean, Reliable Electricity throughout the Energy Transition
Decarbonizing the grid will require a thoughtful, coordinated approach,
leveraging a variety of solutions tailored to each region’s needs
The world urgently needs to combat climate change — it’s a massive and unparalleled undertaking. Progress toward net zero carbon will be incremental, iterative and uneven. The path each region is taking and the time it will take differ widely. Meanwhile, the power grid must remain reliable for a world that depends on electricity.
“We cannot just flip a switch and eliminate reliance on fossil fuels immediately,” says Michael Ducker, Vice President of Renewable Fuels at Mitsubishi Power Americas and Chief Operating Officer at ACES Delta LLC. “However, the time to act is now, and the power industry will need both short- and long-term solutions for cleaner sources of energy that work for communities, companies and the planet.”
To successfully navigate this transition, power producers must evaluate changing technology, infrastructure, markets, policy and even mindsets. In short, we will need a steady flow of solutions to fit each region’s unique needs.
Where we are and where we’re going
The industry has made considerable progress on a key element of decarbonization: exiting coal- and oil-fired power generation. Between 2011 and mid-2020, the United States retired 95 gigawatts of coal capacity — enough to power more than seven million homes — with another 25 gigawatts due to shut down by 2025. Retiring coal generation between 2018 and 2019 alone reduced power-sector carbon emissions by 8%.
While replacing coal with natural gas and renewables has given the decarbonization movement momentum, there is still more that needs to be done. We will need to reduce or even eliminate the use of natural gas, continue to add more renewables and add short- and long-duration energy storage to ensure reliability of the power grid. Lithium-ion batteries can provide stored energy for short durations of 1 to 4 hours. For longer periods, green hydrogen, which is hydrogen produced from renewable energy, can store energy for days, weeks, months or seasons. The hydrogen can then be used as a carbon-free fuel when needed.
Hydrogen’s role in the energy transition
Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are becoming efficient and plentiful; however, they are unable to meet demand alone. Because solar and wind are intermittent, storage is a necessary part of any net zero solution. Green hydrogen produced with excess renewable electricity that would otherwise have been curtailed can be stored to be used later — on days when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, for instance, or in the winter when we need electricity to heat our homes through the longer nights.
Green hydrogen functions as more than just a zero-carbon fuel, particularly for gas-powered turbines. “In power, we’re really thinking of green hydrogen more as a battery than as a fuel,” says Ducker. “We can use it as a fuel to run a long-haul truck across the country, but we can also use it as a carrier to store excess clean energy and supply the grid with power when it’s needed most.”
Steps along the way
As we move toward net zero power production, it’s critical not to jeopardize the electricity supply. That’s why green hydrogen’s role as an energy storage solution is so important. To keep the lights on and continue to make progress, flexibility will also be essential.
In anticipation of a hydrogen-powered future, Mitsubishi Power has already adapted its industry-leading gas turbines to operate on a blend of natural gas and hydrogen. Today, although the company’s turbines are capable of using more than 90% hydrogen, they operate at 30% to accommodate combustion technology that minimizes nitrogen oxide emissions. Ultimately, they will operate on 100% green hydrogen.
The percentage of hydrogen those turbines can accommodate with low emissions is expected to rise over the next seven years. “Higher temperature, higher pressure and lower emissions are the entire history of our industry,” says Ducker. “Hydrogen just takes it to the next level.”
Producing the green hydrogen that will run those turbines is another challenge requiring interim steps. The increasing supply of relatively inexpensive renewable power will improve the economics around the production of green hydrogen through electrolysis.
In the meantime, however, solutions such as clean hydrogen produced from natural gas using carbon capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS) technology enables us to have access to a clean fuel today as we scale and build out the needed infrastructure. CCUS has been around for decades but is as relevant today as ever. In fact, the International Energy Agency declared in its latest report that achieving the Paris Agreement’s targets won’t be possible without CCUS.
Producing as much hydrogen as soon as possible, and as cleanly as possible, will continue to decarbonize the existing power supply more quickly by substituting incrementally cleaner fuels for turbines.
Decarbonizing hard-to-electrify sectors
Applying existing technologies in new ways will also play a major role in the journey toward a net zero carbon future. Not all industries or regions will be able to transition quickly to low-carbon or net zero technologies. Finding ways to reduce their carbon footprints in the short term can enable continual progress while we prepare for and make these more difficult transitions, even if the long-term solution isn’t entirely clear yet.
Developing more effective CCUS systems will help. So will creating new uses for captured carbon. Turning carbon from a liability into an income stream will further incentivize established CCUS technology and create a carbon value chain that companies can continue to build on — a platform for growth that also provides an opportunity for immediate gains in hard-to-decarbonize areas.
“We’re in wind power, PV solar, battery energy storage, nuclear power, and we’re in hydrogen. We want to be open to whatever is the fastest path to net zero carbon emissions,” says Bhatt.
These kinds of efforts mean we don’t have to wait for zero-carbon technology to mature before we can make progress on decarbonization. But we’ll need even more innovation over time to provide a series of viable solutions that can accelerate progress each step of the way.
Progress any way we can create it
To advance the energy transition, we’ll need innovation. And we’ll need to apply it flexibly by developing new technologies and discovering ways to improve or repurpose old ones. With a goal as urgent and ambitious as net zero carbon, every step counts.
Ultimately, says Bhatt, the key is to find the right mix of technologies to stay on track. “Net zero carbon is not going to happen unless we achieve what we need to achieve in the power sector over the next decade,” she says. “We get almost all of our energy right now from fossil fuels, and we’re changing that while simultaneously remaking our electric power grid. That’s an enormous challenge.”
See our Blueprint for Decarbonization to learn more about our vision for a net zero and reliable power industry.