How Green Technologies Can Aid Decarbonization Efforts
With every year, the fight against climate change becomes both more urgent and complex. While climate change is an inevitable cycle of the planet, human activities have dramatically increased the concentration of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, which has caused temperature and weather extremes. The most common greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which is largely attributable to the burning of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are an integral part of the global energy portfolio, whether that’s for the production of electricity or as fuel for vehicles. Fortunately, there are technologies like distributed energy resources (DERs) or electric vehicles (EVs) that complement and enhance the decarbonization efforts necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change.
What is Decarbonization?
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas emitted by organic life, the decomposition of vegetation, fires, volcanic eruptions, the ocean, and more. Humans alone exhale 2.3 pounds of carbon dioxide every day, although that average is in turn reciprocally consumed by plant life. Since the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen by almost 49%. As of 2019, the U.S. emitted 5.1 billion metric tons of carbon, which is approximately 15.41% of the 33.1 billion metric tons of carbon emissions globally.
One of many climate change mitigations, decarbonization efforts look to minimize the overall volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the U.S., the goal is to achieve 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. Accomplishing this objective involves a variety of strategies, including infrastructural initiatives intended to drive renewable energies, the electrification of transportation, and conservation efforts like demand response programs that minimize usage during peak load times.
Common Carbon Producers
There are many contributors to human-made carbon emissions. In the U.S., electricity production and transportation accounted for a combined 54% of greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 46% of greenhouse gas emission contributors come from industry, agriculture, and commercial and residential use. Again, the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to higher carbon emissions. Fortunately, several emerging technologies can mitigate these emissions either by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies or by instituting conservation efforts. Let’s look at a few of the most common challenges to decarbonization, and the solutions that may help us overcome these obstacles.
Problem: Modernizing the Grid
Globally, nearly ¾ of all global emissions come from energy consumption. As such, decarbonization is a global priority, which is why the United Nations has set 2050 as the goal to reach carbon neutrality. The premise of carbon neutrality isn’t to halt all carbon emissions but to negate any emissions by either balancing or eliminating them through various means. That objective presents an international challenge to countries like China, which generated 53% of the global coal-fired power. While China attributes its reliance on fossil fuels as necessary to power their various industries, like many countries, transitioning to carbon neutrality is challenged by economic, technological, and infrastructural hurdles.
The grid in the U.S. is powered by a diverse portfolio of energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable energies. In 2020 the U.S. reported that the grid was fueled 40% by natural gas and 19% by coal, both fossil fuels. To accomplish U.S. carbon neutrality goals, the U.S. government recently passed a national infrastructure bill that addresses the crossroads between emerging technologies and economic necessities. Several of these green technologies are increasingly available to utility companies and prosumers alike, and are designed to minimize, and, at times, replace consumer reliance on fossil fuels.
Distributed energy resources (DERs) are green technologies designed to synthesize multiple, existing resources that generate energy often independent of a grid. Examples of DER technologies include rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, wind generating units, battery storage, electric vehicle (EV) charging, and more. Since access to DERs is lowering, these technologies present an opportunity for utilities to modernize their grid, and have great potential to increase decarbonization efforts by minimizing our collective reliance on fossil fuels.
For example, to maintain grid equilibrium, utility providers are often required to employ peaker plants during times of higher usage. Because peaker plants are designed for specific circumstances, they are often costly to build and maintain. Furthermore, peaker plants emit high levels of air pollutants and contribute to poor air quality in the communities that they are located. DERs minimize the need for peaker plants, by providing safe, clean, community-driven renewable energies that can be combined via distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) to serve as a virtual peaker plant.
Solution: Demand Response
While DERs offer a renewable energy alternative, demand response is a conservation effort that minimizes overall use. As with peaker plant usage, demand response programs revolve around high times of energy consumption, when utilities are most likely to buy more energy elsewhere or initiate a peaker plant to keep the grid balanced. In the U.S., these programs have yielded terawatt-hours of national savings, and that number will continue to grow to meet decarbonization goals.
Demand response programs are a collective conservation effort between utility operations and customer participants to turn off various household devices to mitigate any further strain on the grid. During demand events, utility providers halt power to those devices for a brief time, which minimizes the need for peaker plants or energy purchases. By leveraging various BYOD strategies, demand response programs can center around a variety of high-consuming device types, from thermostats to water heaters.
Problem: Fossil Fueled Transportation
As of this writing, there are around 1.45b vehicles around the world. Of that number, there are only about 10m electric vehicles, which is less than 1% of all vehicles. On average, a standard combustion engine vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year alone. Given the sheer volume of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles in the world, it’s no wonder that transportation is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. While remote work possibilities and telecommunications have decreased the need for a commute, many industries have and will continue to require transportation as part of the job.
Solution: Electric Vehicles & EV Charging
Decarbonization efforts run parallel to the concept of electrification, which looks to replace existing fossil fuel technologies with electric alternatives. Working in tandem, research indicates that decarbonization and electrification efforts can result in a 74% decrease in carbon emissions by 2050 from 2005 levels. The transition to electric vehicles promises a path forward for the transportation system while presenting a new challenge to grid resiliency. Since the electric car market is booming, utilities are working hard to keep up with a shifting load balance brought on by charging.
Effective electric vehicle (EV) charging strategies support V2G charging, which connects vehicles to the grid. Bidirectional charging creates two-way access to the grid, allowing utilities to shift loads accordingly during expensive times of day, returning unused energy to the grid without customers losing their charge. Enterprising utilities can use EV charging as an opportunity to enhance innovative rate designs that balance customer needs, with time-of-day rates, all mindful of decarbonization objectives.
Solution: Electrified Mass Transit
As noted above, there are many vehicles. Irrespective of whether these vehicles are electric or powered by fossil fuels, fewer vehicles lead to fewer obstacles. An electrified mass transit system solves many of the aforementioned problems, while cumulatively lowering our overall reliance on individual vehicles. This is an equally important step to decarbonization efforts, by providing the most transportation with the least vehicles, and one currently pursued worldwide.
Decarbonization & Green Technologies Conclusion
While there is no singular solution to achieving decarbonization, the available resources for utilities are low access and designed with ease-of-implementation in mind. That includes the employment of green technologies to secure grid resiliency, while simultaneously looking at low-tech environmental solutions like planting more trees. Whatever the case, decarbonization presents as many challenges as opportunities for growth by reimagining the grid for a sustainable and long-lasting future. Decarbonization efforts can lead to a circular economy, a cyclical economic model that is both efficient and self-perpetuating by design.
Do you have any tips or strategies for decarbonization? We’d love to hear from you. Just sign off in the comments section below.