by Pat Walsh, Contributing Writer
Challenging attendees of the NEMA Annual Meeting to imagine a decarbonized, resilient energy system, David Porter, Senior Director of Electrification and Sustainable Energy Strategy at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), focused on the role that the utility sector will play in that transformation.
Mr. Porter leads the research and development team at EPRI that focuses on electrification, customer solutions, sustainability, ecosystem stewardship, and environmental health and safety.
In order for the United States to reach its 2030 climate change target of 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction from 2005 levels, rapid decarbonization across all sectors of the economy will be crucial. A digital transformation will drive the modernization and affordability of the future energy system. Characterized by pervasive sensors, monitoring, and advanced analytics—all of which will be supported by artificial intelligence (AI)—the transformation will be supported by upgraded and expanded communications infrastructure and control systems.
According to Mr. Porter, the electric sector has already realized a 35 percent CO 2 reduction over the last 15 years, as coal has been replaced with renewables and natural gas, and transportation, buildings, and industry increasingly have adopted efficient technologies. Based on that, EPRI projects that the 2030 target is achievable by increasing the pace of decarbonization while building a more integrated and resilient grid. (See Table 1)
Table 1. Reimagining the Future Energy System
Accelerate economy-wide, low-carbon solutions that utilize:
- Electric sector decarbonization
- Transmission and grid flexibility based on storage, demand, and electric vehicles
- Efficient electrification
Mitigate climate impacts and cyber/physical risks with:
- System and asset hardening
- Improved response
- Faster recovery
Achieve a net-zero clean energy system with:
- Ubiquitous clean electricity
- Negative-emission technologies
- Low-carbon resources
Future-proof energy system with:
- Resilient power-system design
- Advanced asset design and strategic undergrounding
- Smart integration of energy carriers
Mr. Porter suggested that rapid electrification across transportation, buildings, and industry could enable economy-wide carbon reduction at a lower overall cost than more gradual electrification. Accelerated electrification will lead to a decline in the overall cost of energy services through economies of scale. Lower energy costs could result in increased demand for electricity-consuming goods and equipment such as electric vehicles (EVs) and appliances, driving down their costs as well. The end result is lower overall energy costs for many U.S. households.
A more gradual slope would provide at least one benefit in the absence of accelerated electrification. Delaying the target would allow a more gradual introduction of new technology, which should, at least, avoid electricity price spikes.
Targets, Timing, and Technology
According to Mr. Porter, there are three potential scenarios for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, each of which has unique benefits and costs:
- Net-zero occurs when emissions are balanced by an equivalent amount of carbon removal or offsets;
- Carbon-free refers to electricity generation that either does not use fossil fuels or does not emit carbon; and
- 100-percent renewable means that all electricity is generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and hydro.
Using data that charted gigatons and costs of carbon dioxide, Mr. Porter analyzed emissions in electric and non-electric sectors to forecast net-zero scenarios and projected how the U.S could achieve its goals. He noted regional differences that influence the practicality of each of the three strategies. The East and South, for example, have less solarand wind than the Midwest, West, and Southwest, and transmission constraints are pervasive.
New Thinking, New Approaches
Looking ahead to 2030, Mr. Porter predicted that:
- Extreme weather will increase from 1 in 100-year occurrences to 1 in 10-year events;
- Renewable resources will grow three- to fourfold;
- Cybersecurity will make gains in striving for zero-impact incidents;
- Electric transportation will include EVs for up to half of new car and fleet sales;
- Industrial petroleum-to-gas conversion will increase; and
- Net-zero energy future will reflect accelerated progress across all sectors.
Mr. Porter said that a “shared grid” would enhance grid flexibility and customer resiliency. It would be characterized by new and evolving technologies, like rooftop solar and off-grid inverters that would supply critical loads when power is out. Backup generation would prevent service disruptions and enable virtual power plants. Plus, microgrids would support adaptability and deliver essential services.
In setting forth a roadmap and action plans for a decarbonized grid, Mr. Porter emphasized the need to reduce customers’ installation costs and energy burdens, enhance customer benefits, and address grid readiness. He suggested, for example, that customers could contribute two-to-eleven kilowatts of controllable load if appliances arrived grid-connected, EV chargers were controllable from day one, and every new water heater and air-conditioning unit participated in demand-response programs.
Electric transportation presents its own challenges, including constructing a nationwide charging network, as well as charging stations in underserved areas.
Enabling a shared-energy economy begins with addressing prevalent needs across an energy-sector landscape that encompasses regulations, operations, customer engagement, and affinity partnerships. An integrated, system-level approach, based on ubiquitous communication and distributed energy resource management systems, would offer greater choice, comfort, convenience, and control to all stakeholders.
A cleaner electric system relies on diverse production sources, like next-gen technologies including nuclear, natural gas with carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS), and alternate fuels like hydrogen and ammonia. Key contributions from electrification follow two paths. The first is direct electrification where zero-carbon electrons go to end uses directly. The second is indirect electrification where clean electrons create alternate fuels (e.g., hydrogen, ammonia, etc.) which then go to more specialized end uses such as high-temperature industrial applications, heavy-duty transportation, and chemical processes.
Delivery and storage for successful incorporation of alternate fuels depend on blending new and existing infrastructure, like natural gas pipelines, shipping, and above- and underground storage. Connecting new renewable generation to the grid means adding more inter-regional transmission. And diversifying supply and delivering lower-cost clean energy entails increased long-distance transmission investment.
Comprehensive strategies for climate adaptability are needed to meet future needs. Unprecedented dependence on renewables, coupled with shifts in where and when power is needed, places pressure on planners, regulators, electricity markets, and grid operators to ensure reliability.
A consistent framework to apply future climate modeling includes:
- More localized climate projections related to temperature, precipitation, and flooding;
- Effects of electric supply and demand on resources, efficiency, and loads;
- A generation, transmission, and distribution vulnerability assessment to measure asset risk and mitigation; and
- Investment decisions related to resiliency planning in generation capacity, operations, transmission, and cooling.
Focusing on what it would take to achieve the target rather than analyzing the efficacy of specific policies, Mr. Porter concluded by sharing EPRI’s formula for shaping the future of energy. Societal priorities like reliability and resiliency, affordable energy bills, and a clean environment must be integrated with the energy sector’s focus on grid modernization, energy efficiency, and digital expansion.
Together, he said, they will advance an equitable and just energy transition.