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CERAWEEK: DOE's 'Energy Earth Shots' requires private industry collaboration


Scaling up tech faces challenges

Cross-disciplinary efforts required

'Energy system is naturally recalcitrant'

  • Author
  • Mark Watson
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  • Gary Gentile
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The private sector's help is sought in three main "Energy Earth Shots" -- clean hydrogen production, long-duration energy storage and direct carbon capture from the air – for significant technology improvement, a top US Department of Energy official said March 11 during the CERAWeek by S&P Global energy conference in Houston.

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"Back in April, the Biden administration set out three specific goals: a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, reaching 100% clean ... electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050," said Geraldine Richmond, US Department of Energy undersecretary for science and innovation. "What we need to do is we need to have more clean electrons."

During a panel discussion entitled, "How Fast Can Innovation Scale?", Richmond said basic scientific knowledge needs to move into applied science and widespread deployment to achieve these "Energy Earth Shots" of clean hydrogen, long-duration energy storage and carbon capture.

"That's what we're working so hard on, ... to get people out of their swim lanes and start interacting more," Richmond said.

The DOE's 17 national laboratories are "working extremely hard" to meet clean energy goals, Richmond said, "because it is urgent for us to come up with these solutions."

"That $62 billion that came from the infrastructure bill you should also pay attention to, because that is where we're going [to use] to do the demonstration projects and the deployment projects," Richmond said, of which many have costs shared by the private sector.

Steven Koonin, a New York University professor of business and engineering, said widespread deployment of new technologies must overcome three main challenges: technical feasibility, economic competitiveness and the ability to achieve meaningful scale.

Cross-disciplinary efforts

National laboratories are working with industry to achieve cross-disciplinary efficiencies, Richmond said.

"All of the things that we are doing, especially with these Earth Shots and the cross-cutting efforts that we are doing, all of them are talking about cost estimates and marketing," Richmond said. "Are we perfect yet? No, but I think we have a good sense of what kind of people we need to involve in all this. That's why this meeting is so great for me ... because I can say to all of you, please help us, because we really want you to be engaged in this."

Moderator Carolos Pascual, S&P Global senior vice president for energy and international affairs, said the world knows how to produce hydrogen "of various colors." In the energy industry, "green" hydrogen is produced without carbon emissions, "blue" is from natural gas, "gray" is from natural gas and other fossil fuels, and "brown" is from coal.

"The commercial viability of some of those colors is not quite there yet," Pascual said. "So, how do we move this along to get it to that point of viability of scaling up so that it can become something that is commercially real?"

Richmond said the DOE's Office of Clean Energy Development is working on demonstration projects with private industry to "de-risk some of these projects that we know such as hydrogen that are extremely difficult to do."

From that point, DOE is forming Joint Economic Technology Teams to take technology toward deployment via DOE's Loan Program Office, which "now is in full activity," Richmond said.

'Naturally recalcitrant'

NYU's Koonin, who served in the DOE as undersecretary for science from 2009 to 2011, said the LPO had previously "as a whole made money" as a guarantor for projects in the demonstration phase, but he offered a cautionary note.

"The energy system is naturally recalcitrant," Koonin said. "It doesn't like change. ... The ability to change it goes down as you have to change more pieces."

For example, California's $300 million in rebates for hydrogen-powered vehicles remains isolated because it requires a switch in vehicles, fuel distribution and fuel delivery to consumers.

"That's a lot of pieces to change at once," Koonin said. "Frankly it was a failure, too much before its time and too many pieces needed to change at once. Hydrogen for power storage – power to gas to power – I think is a much more easily done thing. ... The main issue is you've got to get the cost down to where it's competitive with the alternative."

Panelist Robert Armstrong, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative, expressed doubt that hydrogen would become a significant electricity generating fuel, but it could replace other fuels in industrial applications.

However, Armstrong likes the DOE's "hydrogen hub" proposal because it accepts diverse sources of hydrogen in various locations, which helps inform where and in what ways hydrogen use makes sense.

"It happens sometimes as you scale some things up that you need some new injection of science," Armstrong said. "I think the national labs can help the industry out and play a big role in that."