Carbon-Neutral Energy Sector: Dream or Reality?
The US is aiming to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, but what hurdles does it face?
The first solar cell and wind turbine prototypes were invented almost 150 years ago in the 1880s. However, only in 2015 did renewables take a real seat at the global energy table when 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement—the first-ever, legally-binding universal climate action agreement, aiming to avert the worst impacts of climate change (such as flooding, wildfires, and food crisis) by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero. By 2020, more than 110 countries, including the US, committed to the 2050 net-zero GHG emissions target. For the US, the target is no small feat: we are one of the biggest GHG emitters, along with China, India, Russia, and Japan. So how will we achieve a carbon-neutral country by 2050? By targeting the most significant source of emissions: the energy sector.
Carbon-neutral energy sector: dream or reality?
In November 2022, the US Energy Information Administration, a government resource for policy-independent energy data, forecasts, and analyses, predicted that, for the first time, renewables will have generated more electricity than coal by the end of 2022. What’s more, 2022 was recently called “arguably the most important year in United States climate action” for its historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—federal legislation passed in August 2022 with $369 billion in climate investments helping accelerate the clean energy transition. This law positions the US to hit the ambitious 2030 target of cutting emissions in half and has propelled the creation of more than 100,000 clean energy jobs across the country as of January 31, 2023. Within the same timeline, over 90 new clean energy projects have sprung across the country, totalling $89.5 billion in new clean energy investments. However, the IRA also highlighted the clean energy industry's supply chain issues, exacerbated by the pandemic and new skyrocketing demand. And while there is a push for US manufacturing, it might still be some time before these issues get resolved.
...Others believe that we already have most of the clean technologies needed to solve the climate crisis.
While certainly legacy building, the IRA was not the US government’s only transformational investment in clean energy in 2022. In the fall of last year, the US Department of Energy (DoE) offered a $7 billion grant to create clean energy hubs. DoE defined these hubs as a “network of clean hydrogen producers, potential clean hydrogen consumers, and connective infrastructure located in close proximity.” Why clean hydrogen? Hydrogen is a rainbow family of zero-carbon fuel—gray, blue, turquoise, green, pink, gold, and orange—whose colors are assigned depending on the production method. In this family, blue and green hydrogen have been the industry’s favorites as they are considered clean; their production process eliminates associated carbon emissions through carbon sequestration (blue hydrogen) or by powering it with renewable solar or wind energy (green hydrogen). However, both blue and green hydrogen present significant challenges as the “next” clean energy solution for climate change. Some consider blue hydrogen hardly “clean” because of the carbon footprint realities of its production process: blue hydrogen is still made the same way as conventional (gray) hydrogen by using heat and pressure to convert the methane in natural gas to hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and even though the latter is captured, there is still some that remains uncaptured along with fugitive emissions of unburned methane. This process leads to blue hydrogen production having a 20 percent higher carbon footprint than burning natural gas or coal directly for heat. In turn, green hydrogen (produced using solar or wind renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen) currently costs more than double to produce compared to gray hydrogen, requiring cheaper equipment and an unprecedented increase in solar and wind generation capacity to bend this curve towards feasible. What would it take? To put this in perspective, globally, we will need to install seven to nine times the number of solar and wind energy systems we have installed as of 2018 (not for hydrogen but for electrification purposes only). However, there is a third, clean, and renewable hydrogen option: natural (gold) hydrogen, or, as Science magazine recently called it, “hidden hydrogen.” Hidden hydrogen is found within the Earth and can be drilled for in the same way we drill for oil. It was discovered in 1888, but only in the last decade has the natural hydrogen revolution begun. We still have a ways to go in understanding how natural hydrogen occurs and where to find it, but hopefully, the next funding call for hydrogen hubs will include gold hydrogen.
To innovate or not to innovate?
While many influential people, including philanthropist Bill Gates and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, agree that innovation is the solution to climate change, others believe that we already have most of the clean technologies needed to solve the climate crisis. Perhaps both camps are correct—it depends on how you define innovation. According to Gates, the climate solution is “creating better technological alternatives where it is the same price or cheaper to accomplish the same goal in a climate-conscious way.” This definition has guided the maturation of renewable energy systems like solar. In the past 150 years, we have gone from solar cells with one percent efficiency to solar panels with over 21 percent efficiency and the ability to produce power from both sides of the panel (called bifacial modules). What’s more, complimentary technologies, like real-time solar panel soiling data collection and remediation, have been developed to boost panels’ performance. This technological leap has been supported by the leap in cost efficiency—in the last decade, there has been approximately a 60 to 80 percent reduction in the cost of solar energy systems.
But what about technological innovations in terms of developing new technologies? According to Mark Jacobson, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, and water can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy. In 2009, Jacobson, with his colleague Mark Delucchi, PhD, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis, called for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal, and rooftop solar installations worldwide to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels while citing the biggest barriers of supply chain and political will. Yet, in a February 2023 interview, Jacobson reiterates that we have all the tools now and do not need “miracle technologies” like carbon capture, blue hydrogen, or nuclear power to solve the crisis. Fourteen years later, the issue remains the same: a lack of political willpower.
A carbon-neutral US by 2050?
Climate Action Tracker, an independent resource on climate research, rates the US efforts as insufficient. Although it looks like a poor grade, we are rated higher than other top emitters (China, India, and Russia). According to the website, COVID-19 helped the US exceed its 2020 GHG emission targets, but in 2021 they bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. Our journey to the 2050 net-zero GHG emission target seems to be an ebb-and-flow process.
Ultimately, the US needs a comprehensive action plan in other sectors—manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and construction—to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In the meantime, innovation and political willpower will continue bringing us closer to the not-so-distant, net-zero future.
1. “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” by Bill Gates.