Grid (un)locked: Carbon neutral future depends on updating how we make, move and store electricity

In the push to decarbonize the economy throughout the Intermountain West and beyond, the public conversation often centers on wind and solar energy, electric cars, hydrogen power and carbon capture and storage. The grid—the interconnected power plants, transmission lines and control centers that keep the lights on across the country—is the indispensable 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 overall capacity, storage and reserves as we use more electricity for everything from cars to home heating,” said Mary Ewers, an energy and economics researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has studied the grid for over a decade. “Achieving that future also depends on science to inform the public and decision makers about the options, so they support and make the best choices at all levels, from community to state to region.”

Place-based solutions

Ewers leads the Electricity thrust within the Intermountain West Energy Sustainability and Transitions initiative, or I-WEST. 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 comprises Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Communities in each state are being impacted by market transitions away from fossil energy.

“I-WEST is a place-based initiative dedicated to finding the most regionally appropriate strategies and technologies for cutting emissions from this sector and others while providing reliable energy, protecting jobs and helping communities thrive,” Ewers said.

Later this year, I-WEST will produce a preliminary energy-transition roadmap with pathways to carbon neutrality focusing on the four main I-WEST technology areas: hydrogen, CO2, bioenergy and low-carbon electricity. Based on community input, the roadmap will outline the needs and concerns of the people in the region, the technologies that can be most appropriately deployed regionally, the resources available for carbon-neutral energy, potential industry partners and the economic and policy landscapes.

Carbon-neutral energy systems don’t add new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and are vital to limiting climate change.

Broad range of energy technologies needed

“The electricity sector of the I-WEST region emits a total of 166 million tons of CO2 per year, every year, with 129 million tons from the coal plants and 37 million tons from natural gas plants,” Ewers said. “We will need to rely on a broad range of energy technologies as we shift to carbon-neutral electricity. That includes familiar ones like wind and solar, and newer ones including blending hydrogen with natural gas, utility-scale batteries to store variable renewable power for on-demand use, small nuclear modular reactors and others.”

A number of enabling technologies will be needed to make those other pathways viable. Carbon capture can immediately reduce emissions from point sources and make hydrogen production carbon-neutral, utility-scale batteries can make renewable energy reliable and water-treatment technologies can lower the use of potable water for energy production.

A key piece of the puzzle is capturing carbon from smokestack emissions and sequestering it in geologic formations or using it in products such as new types of concrete. Carbon capture can lower the carbon-footprint of traditional fossil-fuel power plants and ultimately make them carbon neutral.

Through workshops with participants from the power production and transmission sectors, industrial consumers, regional and rural co-ops, regional universities and Department of Energy laboratories, I-WEST has identified the challenges in transitioning to carbon-neutral and the approaches that might best suit the region. The region’s abundance of solar energy makes renewables a natural choice. Blending natural gas and hydrogen makes sense as a “bridging technology” to energy transition in the region because of its extensive resources, workforce and infrastructure. Nuclear power has promise because of the region’s capacity for mining and reprocessing uranium.

Chief among the challenges to making the transition is balancing load on the grid, meaning matching supply to fluctuating (and likely increasing) demand. One piece of the load challenge is storing energy from renewables so the grid can handle extreme events in the absence of the steady power provided by fossil fuels. Answers could come from grid-scale batteries and other options, such as pumped hydropower. The latter uses wind or solar to lift water to a higher elevation in a kind of large-scale battery of stored water, from which water can later be released. Gravity does the work as the water flows through a hydropower generator to generate electricity. Limitations on water availability could be a factor, though.

One regional opportunity for renewable energy that can provide steady power without the need for grid-scale batteries is geothermal, which takes advantage of the elevated 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 in getting the region to carbon neutrality.

Other challenges include limited transmission capability to move electricity from new sources to end users. Another is the lack of a region-wide pricing structure, which leads to perhaps the biggest factor in the switch to carbon-neutral energy: cost. Economics will drive every decision. Many of the costs to deploy these new technologies will be passed to the consumer through rates, and regulating bodies must approve those rates. That doesn’t mean everyone’s electric bill is going to jump sky high—electric utilities routinely make new investments that are paid off by rates—but solving these issues will require new approaches at every level.

Adapting the regional grid to these challenges will require careful, system-wide planning. Los Alamos, which has decades of experience researching the grid’s vulnerabilities and optimizing its structure and operation to maintain grid resiliency, is well positioned to lead this part of the I-WEST initiative in partnership with stakeholders across the region.

“It won’t be one single technology that gets us to carbon neutrality,” Ewers said. “It will be a range of solutions.”

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